For the second time in two years, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board blasted the commonwealth for propping up its horseracing industry (to the tune of some $3 billion since 2004). This time, however, the paper also mentioned ever-increasing outrage over dead racehorses, something, I say with pride, we’ve had much to do with. This, coming as it does from Pennsylvania’s largest newspaper, and the governor’s recent proposal to redirect those subsidies toward education are clear indications that times are changing – and fast. With the pressure ratcheting-up, can action – and the sure demise of Pennsylvania horseracing – be far behind?

Here are excerpts (full editorial here).

“For 16 years, Pennsylvania has been saddled with an obligation to prop up a flailing horse race industry. Since [2004], the industry has gotten close to $3 billion dollars from … slot machines. That’s a lot of money — about $240 million per year — that should have by now stabilized and improved the sector. It hasn’t. [A]lmost every data point connected to the performance of Pennsylvania racing shows a decline. The number of wagers, the number of races, the number of horses, the purses paid, and the attendance at tracks: all in decline, a trend going back years.

“Layer those problems on top of growing outcry over the treatment and deaths of racehorses around the country. Starting in 2018, for example, a rash of horse deaths at Santa Anita Park in California led one industry commenter to note, ‘Poorly bred, overraced, exhausted horses being whipped toward the finish line is not a sport; it’s an exercise in sadistic exploitation.’

“A report last year by PennLive/Patriot-News revealed that 87 horses died in Pennsylvania in 2018 alone [it’s actually more; see my report]. [W]e have to ask, not for the first time: Why are we subsidizing this?

“Those supporting the industry claim that the money supports agricultural jobs which boosts the state economy, and by funding bigger purses, more people will bet. The reality doesn’t back that up. With so many critical and human problems this state faces, the unquestioning propping up of an industry that has shown no promise of improving is outrageous. That’s why Gov. Wolf gets credit for his latest proposal to use about $200 million of that annual money to fund scholarships for Pennsylvania students to attend Pennsylvania colleges. It’s about time.”

Indeed it is.

Alas, a tragic truth: Hearts and minds alone will not win this fight. As long as Horseracing continues to enjoy obscene amounts of corporate welfare – a.k.a. subsidies – it will continue to exist, no matter how effective we are in shifting public opinion or in reducing the demand for the racing product. Our big challenge on this front, however, is that most people, including the politicians ultimately responsible for them, are utterly unaware of the subsidies and how they work. But that’s beginning to change, as evidenced by Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf’s recent proposal to reclaim some $200 million from Racing and redirect it where it was supposed to go in the first place – education.

The industry, of course, is terrified that this could become a trend; if it does, the bulk of U.S. Racing will fail, practically overnight. When forced to defend, the industry’s argument goes like this: With lotteries, casinos, and now “all-sports betting,” the gambling landscape has dramatically changed. Horseracing, they say, has (unfairly) been put at a competitive disadvantage and needs help leveling the field. Next comes talk of “tradition” and economic impact – “thousands of jobs,” ancillary industries like feed, hay, etc. Never mind that animal racing had a virtual monopoly on legal gambling for decades; never mind that their numbers are mostly pulled out of thin air. This pitch has heretofore been effective, for no politician wants to be on the wrong side of jobs.

Anyhow, rarely do we get honesty on this (which is to be fully expected as this industry’s entire business model is based on a lie: horseracing as sport). So imagine my surprise when HorseRaceInsider – “The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing” – admitted that this subsidy thing of theirs, once exposed, is unsustainable, a sure loser if tried in the court of public opinion. Recently, HorseRaceInsider’s Tom Jicha wrote:

“An existential threat to racing, more ominous than a distressing spate of horse deaths, reared its head again this week. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, in his annual budget message, asked his state’s lawmakers to redirect more than $200 million of casino proceeds, which currently goes to his state’s horse racing and breeding program, to a new college scholarship fund. If the governor gets his way, purses at the state’s horse tracks would decrease by 90%. Pennsylvania HBPA executive director Todd Mostoller was succinct in what this would mean. ‘We would be out of business.’

“Even if [the proposal fails], this is not an idea that is going to go away. [T]he governor is playing a strong hand likely to be enthusiastically received by the masses. There aren’t many politicians who wouldn’t want to go to their electorate on a platform that if we take away money from horse racing purses…we can underwrite the higher education of 25,000 of our children.”

Jicha went on to cite similar dangers lurking in West Virginia (incessant budget problems) and New York (pension issues; “Gov. Cuomo’s disdain for racing”). But then the money quote, coming, I remind, from a prominent racing writer: “To be honest, I’m not sure there is an effective argument against the case Gov. Wolf is making.”

No there isn’t, Mr. Jicha. Preserving a declining industry, as measured by demand (handle, attendance), that abuses and kills sentient beings as a matter of course, at the expense of schoolchildren (or any student) is eminently untenable. In other words, the clock is ticking, and you know it.

Yesterday, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf unveiled a budget that would divert some $200 million in horseracing subsidies to education: “I’m proposing a historic $200 million investment in scholarships for the young Pennsylvanians attending our state system universities. And we’ll do that by repurposing existing tax dollars that are right now flowing into the Horse Racing Development Fund. Let’s bet on our kids instead of bankrolling race horse owners.”

(Pete Peterson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, said this, in the Daily Racing Form, in response: “If approved by the legislature, this raid would result in the end of horse racing in Pennsylvania by eviscerating the primary funding source for the purses [90% of purse cash comes from slots and other gaming] and breeder incentives that serve as the lifeblood of the industry.” A “raid”? Please. But let’s hope Mr. Peterson proves prophetic.)

Hear, hear, Governor Wolf! We have been arguing for this for years: Stop bailing out a dying, cruel industry at the expense of schoolchildren, infrastructure, etc. Early last year, I sent the following to every member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly (I have updated with latest figures). Today, it is more important than ever that they hear from us: Pennsylvania House; Pennsylvania Senate. And let’s also express our gratitude to Governor Wolf. (Feel free to paraphrase anything you see below.)

I am writing today in the hope that you might reconsider the subsidies being paid to your state’s horseracing industry. I am arguing this on two levels: First, propping up individual industries runs counter to America’s free-market principles. Myriad trades have come and gone in our nation’s history (horse-and-buggy), with winners and losers determined by the merits of, and relative demand for, one’s goods and services. It should not be in government’s purview to keep unwanted – as decided by the market – businesses afloat. To that, here are some pertinent facts:

Horseracing is clearly in decline: Since 2000, U.S. Racing has suffered a net loss of 34 tracks; all other metrics – racedays, races, “fields,” “foal crop,” and, yes, attendance and handle – are also down. The public is speaking – unequivocally – with its wallet.

With the ubiquity of stand-alone casinos and state lotteries (and soon, all-sports betting), Racing has cried foul, claiming that these new businesses are somehow unfair to them. In fact, prior to the advent of lottery products, Horseracing enjoyed a virtual monopoly – for decades – on legal gambling. Now that was unfair.

In Pennsylvania, according to a 2017 report, the racing industry has received $2.6 billion in corporate welfare over the past decade – $239 million in ’17 alone. Referring to this, The Philadelphia Inquirer, in an editorial, wrote, “If multiple billions can’t turn around an industry, isn’t it time we asked how much longer we’re willing to try before altering the arrangement?” (see also, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial)

Far more important, however, is the moral aspect to all this. In short, horseracing kills horses – lots of them. Through our seminal FOIA reporting, we have determined that upward of 2,000 horses are killed racing or training on U.S. tracks every year – easily six per day; to date, we have documented almost 6,000 kills on our website – cardiovascular collapse, pulmonary hemorrhage, blunt-force head trauma; shattered limbs, ruptured ligaments, broken necks, crushed spines.

In addition, every year, hundreds more perish from what the industry craftily calls “non-racing causes” – colic, laminitis, “found dead in stall.” In truth, however, these horses are no less casualties than the ones who snap legs on raceday. And perhaps worst of all, the great majority of “retired” racehorses end up brutally and violently slaughtered when deemed no longer profitable – some 10,000-15,000 Thoroughbreds alone annually. Put bluntly, but accurately, the American horseracing industry is engaged in wholesale carnage. Yes, carnage.

But it’s even worse. While active, life for the typical racehorse is mean and cruel:

From birth, racehorses are pieces of property – chattel. They are bought, sold, traded, and dumped whenever and however their people decide – a stressful, tenuous existence that in and of itself causes pain and suffering: According to the Pennsylvania 2016 FOIA documents, to date the most detailed we have received, virtually every one of the dead horses died with ulcers, most “extensive to severe.”

Racehorses are kept locked in tiny stalls for over 23 hours a day, making a heartrending mockery of the industry claim that horses are “born to run, love to run.”

Racehorses are kept utterly isolated from their peers – an extra layer of cruelty for naturally social, herd-oriented animals.

Racehorses are (obviously) nonconsensually drugged and doped – incessantly injected with myriad performance-enhancing, injury-masking, and pain-numbing chemicals.

Racehorses are utterly controlled and subjugated for the entire length of their “careers.” Indeed, the “race” itself can only be effected through force: nose chains, tongue ties, mouth bits, and, of course, perched humans wielding whips.

In summary, not only is your state diverting much-needed funding for education and other public-good projects to a dying industry, but, in a cruel twist, taxpayers, the vast majority of whom have zero interest in horseracing, are subsidizing unconscionable cruelty and wanton killing. While we would love to see a day when horseracing is banned (like dogracing), for now we are simply asking that the market be allowed to do what it is designed to do. Please do not fall prey to their talk of lost jobs and economic havoc. Horseracing, unlike, perhaps, some other industries (agriculture, banking), is not too big or essential to fail. And if allowed, failure will bring the added benefit of collective moral advancement, as countless horses will henceforth be spared lives of immense suffering and horrible deaths. Thank you.

Patrick Battuello
Founder/President, Horseracing Wrongs

The ’17 and ’18 (the last two years for which we have full statistics) Pennsylvania Dead:

2017
Parx Racing: 43 dead racehorses
Penn National: 48 dead racehorses
Presque Isle Downs: 9 dead racehorses
Harrah’s Philadelphia: 1 dead racehorse
Pocono Downs: 4 dead racehorses
The Meadows: 2 dead racehorses

2018
Parx Racing: 35 dead racehorses
Penn National: 45 dead racehorses
Presque Isle Downs: 8 dead racehorses
Harrah’s Philadelphia: 4 dead racehorses
Pocono Downs: 2 dead racehorses
The Meadows: 4 dead racehorses

In a recent blog post, Craig Bernick, president/CEO of Glen Hill Farm, a major breeding/racing operation, laments that most of his beloved industry remains dependent on the corporate welfare that flows in from slots and other gaming:

“At some point the horse racing industry…stopped caring about gambling on live horse racing. … Without question, horse owners have enjoyed the benefits of expanded gambling in many states via purse supplements. … As great as these benefits are to today’s horse owner, they have warped the sport. Actual gambling on racing is almost inconsequential to running racing in states that have such supplements.

Racetracks are now mostly owned by gaming companies whose aim is to maximize shareholder value. … Since January 1, 2000, the share price of Churchill Downs Incorporated has increased from $7.67 to roughly $140 today for a market cap of $5.6 billion. In that time Churchill has shifted from a horse racing company to a diversified gaming corporation. … While their mission has evolved, it is unthinkable to blame them for doing what is in the best interest of their investors.

“Owners will always push for the highest purses. ‘Protecting the purse account’ is seen as the single most important issue for horsemen’s groups. They’ve been largely successful – purses have stayed level for twenty years, while total races run have dropped by 35%. … The future is likely going to be significantly different.

Racing is facing decoupling – allowing tracks to stop racing while retaining licenses to operate alternative gaming. This has spread significantly across greyhound racing and will shift to Thoroughbreds in the future. The majority of racetracks don’t care about racing. That’s a dangerous sentiment from the perspective of owners and breeders, but it is reality.

“Recap stories from 2019 summarized the overall financial picture of racing in four words – handle down, purses up.

“Gamblers today have so many options…. Wagering on Thoroughbred racing is already down roughly 50% adjusted for inflation over the last 15 years. … Purse subsidies have benefitted many, but we should not expect them to sustain our business indefinitely, particularly as decoupling spreads. Racing needs to be more sustainable on its own. Currently, it isn’t. … Let’s start while there’s still time.”

Good luck with that, Mr. Bernick. The writing, as they say, is on the wall. As more legislators become educated on this egregious corporate welfare (egregious because in propping up an archaic gambling business, states are taking money away from children’s education, infrastructure repair, etc.) and the cash spigot gets shut off, tracks will continue to close. As this unfolds, we Americans will doubly benefit: more money for the public good, and more important – moral progress.