While it may be hard to believe, the North Carolina legislature is actually considering a bill – the “North Carolina Derby Act” – that would introduce Thoroughbred racing to that state. (There are steeplechases in NC; one, Charlotte, recently recorded a kill.) Yes, that’s right, some tone-deaf politicians aim to bring a cruel, increasingly moribund industry to the great state of North Carolina. And so the battle is joined.

After reading a favorable board editorial in the News & Record, North Carolina’s third largest paper, I submitted my own, focusing, of course, on the cruelty and death. It was accepted and published today. I thank the editors for this wonderful opportunity to educate. (While the full text appears below, please clink on the link – again, here – to show our support for the paper.)

As the General Assembly considers whether to legalize horseracing in North Carolina, it is crucial that citizens and legislators be presented with all the information, starting with the fact that this proposal is about 70 years too late.

While there was a time when horseracing was popular, those days are long gone. The “Foal Crop” – the number of new Thoroughbreds entering the system each year – is about half of what it was just 30 years ago. All other metrics – racedays, races, field sizes, and, yes, attendance and handle (amount wagered) – are also down.

Demographically, things could not be worse: the typical horseplayer (regular bettor) is a middle-aged man; the younger generations are simply not interested. The reason for this is twofold: changing sensibilities, which we’ll get to later, and, of course, competition for the gambling dollar – lotteries, casinos, and now sports (real ones, that is) betting. And the effect has been devastating: Since 2000, 39 U.S. racetracks have been shuttered; only one new one has opened – and that only because it is being heavily subsidized by the state. In fact, the bulk of the American horseracing industry subsists entirely on corporate welfare, with wealthy owners pocketing public funds that should be going to general-good issues like education and infrastructure.

But equally if not more important is the moral aspect to all this. Self-serving, romantic rhetoric aside, stripped to its core horseracing is ugly and mean and cruel:

The typical racehorse is torn from his mother as a mere babe, thrust into intensive training at 18 months – years before his body is fully developed – and first raced at two, the rough equivalent of a first-grader. From there, the incessant grinding – again, on an unformed skeleton – begins, because if he’s not racing, he’s not earning. He is pumped, legally and otherwise, with myriad performance-enhancing, injury-masking, and pain-numbing chemicals. He is confined (alone, in a tiny stall for over 23 hours a day), commodified (lip tattoos, auctions, “claiming races”), controlled (cribbing collars, nose chains, tongue ties, blinkers), and cowed (bits and whips). And quite often, killed.

Through FOIA, Horseracing Wrongs has documented over 7,000 deaths at U.S. tracks just since 2014; we estimate that over 2,000 horses are killed racing or training across America every year. Cardiovascular collapse, pulmonary hemorrhage, blunt-force head trauma, broken necks, severed spines, ruptured ligaments, shattered legs. Over 2,000. Every year. In addition, hundreds more die back in their stalls from things like colic, laminitis, or, simply, “found dead in the morning.” And to be clear, this is not just a “cheap track” problem: Saratoga, which bills itself the “oldest sporting venue in the nation,” averages 15 dead a summer. Santa Anita, another elite track, has averaged 50 kills annually since 2007. And at Churchill Downs, home of America’s most celebrated race, the Kentucky Derby, 86 horses have perished over the past four years.

Then, too, slaughter. Two separate studies indicate that most – some 10,000-20,000 annually – spent or simply no-longer-wanted racehorses are mercilessly bled-out and butchered at “career’s” end. In truth, horseracing needs slaughter. In 2019, HorseRace Insider, a pro-racing publication, admitted the following: “The Jockey Club will not support a slaughter-free industry because it will cost $120 million per year to fund the care of the 20,000+ horses bred each year.” Again, The Jockey Club, Racing’s most prominent and powerful organization, will not support a slaughter-free industry – and for proof we need look no further than its refusal to endorse the SAFE Act, a bill that would prohibit the slaughter of American horses – because of cost. Imagine that.

As mentioned at the top, sensibilities toward animal exploitation, most especially regarding entertainment, are rapidly evolving. In just the past few years:

– Ringling Bros. has closed its doors for good, ending over a century of animal abuse.

– SeaWorld, after being exposed by the film Blackfish, has ended the captive-breeding of orcas and remains in slow, steady decline.

– There are rodeo bans in cities as diverse as Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Petersburg, and Fort Wayne.

– Both New York and Illinois have outlawed the use of elephants in any form of entertainment; New Jersey, Hawaii, and California have forbidden all wild-animal acts.

– And most relevant to the issue at hand, after the historic (and overwhelming) referendum vote in Florida in 2018, dogracing in America is all but dead. In fact, dogracing is outright prohibited on moral grounds in 41 of our 50 states.

Clearly, the winds of change are blowing in one direction. And despite its desperate marketing – “tradition,” “beauty,” “The Sport of Kings” – horseracing will not be spared. Indeed, in just the past year, two of the nation’s most influential papers – The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer – have called for racing’s outright end.

So, this is no time to look back, North Carolina. Horseracing in 2021 is an economic nonstarter. But of far more import, it is simply wrong. North Carolinians are known for their warmth, kindness, and generosity. We are only asking that that be extended to these intelligent, sensitive creatures. Please say no to horseracing.

Excerpts from an opinion piece in the Concord Monitor Wednesday:

“When I was a kid, my favorite movie was ‘Phar Lap,’ based on the true story of an Australian racehorse. I loved that movie and that horse. It was tragic and made me cry in heartbreak. A kind boy trains a mistreated horse, and then he wins and wins and wins horse races.

“As moving and memorable as that movie was, it never made me particularly curious about the realities of horse racing. I thought jockeys were interesting, and the horses were extraordinary specimens of beauty, strength and agility. I would wonder about the treatment of the horses from time to time, but that was it.

“Fast forward to today. Working with the NH Animal Rights League, I volunteered to research the reality of horse racing because of last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. And here are the facts.

“According to the organization Horseracing Wrongs, over 1,000 racehorses died on-site in 2019. That is about 20 a week and does not count deaths from other sites related to horse racing (private training facilities, euthanized on farms, the thousands of ‘retired’ ones sold to slaughter).

“Although the use of illegal performance-enhancing and pain masking drugs is rampant in horse racing, even if a horse is drug-free, the strain of a 1,200-pound animal storming down the track at 40 mph exerts incredible stress on the horse’s comparatively fragile legs.

“Ending horse racing is within our power. Look to greyhound racing for proof of that. Only three states now have greyhound tracks. After a long awareness campaign and the changing of laws by animal rights activists, we have realized that racing dogs for monetary profit is not okay, and the same is true of horses.

“Horses have a long history of working for us. They helped plow our fields, pulled our wagons, went to war with us, and even died on our battlefields. Isn’t it time we do something for them? Romanticizing the Kentucky Derby and horseracing is harder to do when you know the facts.” – Emily Murphy

Jo Anne Normile is a former breeder and owner. Upon becoming disillusioned with the racing industry, she left and founded CANTER – the first organization in the country to take Thoroughbreds right from the track to safe havens. After leaving CANTER, Jo Anne co-founded a second successful horse rescue – Saving Baby Equine Charity. These and other racing-related experiences were put to print in the memoir Saving Baby – How One Woman’s Love for a Racehorse Led to Her Redemption. The book was featured in Reader’s Digest and garnered five stars from Barnes and Noble.

Jo Anne’s dedication to horses includes research on “equine self-mutilation syndrome” and compulsive behavior in formerly feral horses; she coauthored studies that appeared in the prestigious Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association and The Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine. In 2012, she coauthored the case study “U.S. Thoroughbreds Slaughtered 2002-2010 Compared to Annual Thoroughbred Foal Crop.” Jo Anne has also provided exhibits for a Congressional hearing on the use of drugs in racehorses and has been a guest speaker at equine safety conferences around the country.

Jo Anne was an early contributor to our “Shedrow Secrets” and is a member of our advisory board. Today, she addresses some of this industry’s tools of the trade.

“It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature”

by Jo Anne Normile

If you were watching television in the 1970s, no doubt you remember the threatening voice declaring “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” as thunder roared, lightning flashed and in some versions of the commercial, wild animals stampeded. When we watch a horse race, the same outrage should be evoked as racing takes away from a horse everything natural to his way of life.

Horses are stressed by change. Stress and pain increase the likelihood of ulcers and colic. Every day, racehorses risk their lives as easily disposable gambling objects, no different than a deck of cards in a casino. If they are too slow or injured, it is likely that their first stop is being dumped into cheap claiming races to become someone else’s “problem” or worse – sold by the pound to a slaughterhouse. This unnatural way of life begins when they are taken from pastures to train when they are just babies. 

Driven by greed alone, 18-month-old horses are “broke to ride” and are already in serious race-training at off-track centers or at the racetracks themselves. The sole reason: to get them into the lucrative 2-year-old races. Immature in body and mind, their natural development and ability to learn about the world around them is no longer in a familiar pasture with playful herd mates; on the contrary, they are typically stuck 23 hours in a stall, all alone – day after day after day.   

Racehorses are forced to endure changes in their diets, stable mates, bedding and surroundings. They have changes in owners, trainers, exercise riders, jockeys, grooms and veterinarians. They must train on a set schedule – not the horse’s schedule. That training schedule is maintained with the assistance of whips for enforcement, and devices of control such as metal bits, tongue ties, shadow rolls and blinkers. 

The young horse in training is given an hour outside of his stall, with every minute of that time controlled. A mix of horses are on the track training, but these horses have not interacted. They are not pasture mates nor do they ever get to enjoy romping together, grazing and mutual grooming. Their immature bodies now balance a whip-wielding rider and must maneuver closely-banked turns – not at their chosen speed or of their own volition. Juveniles forced to perform as if they were adults. Galloping hesitantly, scared and confused, weaving or lugging one way or the other, their movement is noted and the tinkering begins. It’s as if the trainers ask themselves: How can I further mess with nature and promote the lie that “horses love to race”?

Bits

Bits are pieces of metal – a “bar,” says the Daily Racing Form (DRF) – put in a horse’s mouth with reins attached, “by which he is guided and controlled.” Jerking or pulling the reins can cause painful pressure to the sensitive tissues of the mouth. With the clock ticking (to quickly get the horse into a race), the fastest way to try to win control is not through horsemanship but a more severe bit or other equipment.  

The “run-out bit,” the DRF explains, “[is] a special type of bit to prevent a horse from bearing (or lugging) out (or in).” Why would a horse be “bearing out (or in)”? According to the DRF, “Deviating from a straight course may be due to weariness, infirmity, punishment by rider or rider’s inability to control mount.” There it is, racing’s open admission that they know these actions are the horse’s way of saying: “I am exhausted.” “I am sore.” “I do not want to race.” “I do not want to be here.” Nevertheless, the racers will do and utilize whatever it takes to override the horse’s natural instincts and his ability to react to surroundings.  

Blinkers and Shadow Rolls

Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal and they are set on the sides of the head, which gives the horse amazing peripheral vision. Being prey animals, they rely heavily on this vision. It is critical in assisting them to relax and accept their surroundings. Again, the standard procedure is not to take the time to acclimate a young horse with his surroundings, but add a stronger bit or more equipment such as “blinkers” to force control. DRF: “Blinkers [are] a device to limit a horse’s vision to prevent him from swerving from objects or other horses on either side of him.” Blinkers are a facemask, with eye cups of various sizes, used to block the horse’s unique vision. There can be the extreme extension blinkers blocking all vision on one side, full cup blinkers, and eye cups that are smaller and considered “cheaters.” But the goal is the same: limit the galloping horse’s vision.  

A “shadow roll” (usually lambswool) also limits the horse’s field of vision. Placed halfway up the face, it is ostensibly used to keep him from seeing and shying from his own shadow. But once again, it is messing with nature and the horse’s ability to react to his surroundings. 

Horseracing is a deadly business. Why do they so severely handicap the horse’s vision? If blinkers are to “prevent him from swerving from objects or other horses on either side of him,” then their goal is to NOT allow the racehorse galloping at breakneck speeds in a crowded field to react as he should with normal vision. Perhaps the deadly bumping, the tripping, the running into the rail, and the clipping of heels would happen less if the horses were simply able to see!    

Tongue Ties

Trained only to gallop counter-clockwise, racehorses do not make a choice on how to best move nor are they symmetrical in development due to only training in one direction. Unnatural movement is compounded by the use of whips, bits, and vision impairments, and all of that is further exacerbated by the “tongue tie.” According to the DRF, a tongue tie is a “strap or tape bandage used to tie down a horse’s tongue to prevent it from choking in a race or workout.” Sounds compassionate, huh? In truth, the tie, which attaches to the lower jaw, is meant to keep the tongue from sliding up over the bit. Why is this important? Well, sliding the tongue over the bit would relieve the painful pressure caused by the bit, and that painful pressure is crucial in maintaining total control of the horse. Not so compassionate after all.

Planning on running in a local marathon? A jog around your gym’s track? I bet you will run free. You won’t be carrying someone on your back with a whip. You won’t have a painful metal bit stuck in your mouth. You won’t have your tongue physically pulled out and tied down. And you won’t be wearing a device that prevents you from seeing everything around you.

Do horses “love to race”? Of course not. They are prey animals running in fear for their lives. All of these tools – including the whip, which reinforces the feel of a predator’s claws raking their flank – are meant to control movement, to force a race. They are unnatural, but more importantly, they are cruel.