“[A] good race can chart multiple arcs: the frontrunner, the disappointment, the underdog. Who holds its stride when a competitor is on its heels? Who gets in whom’s head and falls apart? Who finds out its extra gear has an extra gear? No matter who you are, there’s a horse for you.” – Seerat Sohi, Yahoo Sports

It’s rare these days that a racing article can still make me angry. But last week, Yahoo Sports published a piece by Seerat Sohi, (mostly) an NBA writer, that did just that and more. Its title: “Why horse racing can appeal to a younger crowd and overcome its ugly past.” Yes, it is as horrible as it sounds – at once, tone-deaf, ignorant, and obtuse.

(Note: I held off writing in the hope of reaching the author; I did not succeed.)

Sohi opens by explaining how, sports-starved during the pandemic, she turned to racing, albeit with low expectations: “Let’s be clear. I wasn’t planning on liking horse racing. Even though I thought it would be tedious…I was ready to play the ponies.” But then, “a dozen beautiful horses leaped from the gates, and I was entranced. I was shocked by how entranced I was.” From there, it was waxing (poetic) time:

“Watching my first race was like grazing the edges of an ancient stone, feeling its power, its ancestry, that sense of entering into an ancient lineage. … The sight of a horse on the run is life-giving, inspiring. It sets off something carnal. The way they tried to best each other, stride by stride, made me want to run.”

She then laments that, despite being “tailor-made for a generation that needs a break to check its phone every 90 seconds,” Racing is not drawing the young. And though she cites “attitudes toward animal cruelty” as a factor – the last of seven mentioned, one of which was “Netflix” (?) – it’s quickly dismissed: “I’m not sure how much that applies to an audience that tunes in every Sunday to watch men mash their heads against each other.” Not the same at all, of course, something the kids surely know. Still, she says, “It isn’t a failure of the product itself. The races are invigorating.”

Of the gambling component, she asks: “But does horse racing even need to hitch itself to gambling?” It’s not, after all, like poker, “because horse racing is a real sport. There’s intrinsic pleasure in watching it. Gambling lubricates the experience, but isn’t dependent on it.” Did I not promise obtuse?

And then, because it seems everything nowadays must be reduced to this, race:

“But the more I read about the mainstream narrative of horse racing, the more disconnected I felt from the races, and it occurred to me why…it took a pandemic and a white boyfriend for this 26-year-old Canadian woman of Indian descent to finally tune in: modern horse racing isn’t designed to appeal to me. The heroes in American horse racing culture are almost always white. That’s on purpose. … Young equestrians are now questioning the horse racing world’s lack of response to George Floyd’s homicide…challenging the sport they love to tackle diversity problems and its deep-seated white privilege.”

So, horseracing is racist. Not speciesist (she probably doesn’t even know what that word means), but racist. Precious.

She closes thus: “If you’ve never watched horse racing…there are races everywhere, all the time. Check one out. Watch the way the horses move. It’s for you.”

Vile – from start to finish.

Of the charges leveled above, however, the most unforgivable is ignorant. Ms. Sohi is a paid journalist. It’s her job to know her subject. And no, providing Wikipedia-like snippets of racing history or citing the number of black jockeys in the 1875 Kentucky Derby doesn’t cut it. Had she done a modicum of research, she would have found that contemporary racing is in the news because of on-track kills, slaughter, whips, drug scandals, and federal indictments – none of which she mentions. At all. (And no, she doesn’t get credit for the “ugly past,” as article titles typically come from editors.)

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps it’s not ignorance at all. Perhaps Ms. Sohi is very much aware that over 2,000 horses die, horrifically, on American tracks each year; that 10,000-15,000 more are violently bled-out and butchered at horseracing’s singular retirement facility, the slaughterhouse; that racehorses are kept locked – alone – in tiny 12×12 stalls for over 23 hours a day; that they are bought, sold, traded, and dumped like common Amazon products; that 90-95% of them have ulcers; that – well, you know the drill. Perhaps Ms. Sohi knows all this – and just doesn’t care. But either way, gross incompetence or simple heartlessness (she does refer to the horses as “its” throughout), for shame, Seerat Sohi (and, of course, Yahoo Sports). For shame.

(full Yahoo article here)

Statements from The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the self-styled “nation’s most effective animal protection organization”:

“We’re not against racing. We want it done well and humanely … HSUS isn’t an anti-racing organization.” – former president and CEO Wayne Pacelle

“This is a national industry, and like football or baseball or other major American sports…we need national standards….” – Pacelle

“[T]he racing industry [is] now enjoying the increased enthusiasm a new superstar [Justify] brings to the sport.” – current president and CEO, Kitty Block

“First, I want to clarify the Humane Society of the United States’ position on horse racing…. We are not, in principle, opposing horse racing.” – Block

“The widespread use of both legal and illegal drugs imperils an industry that employs 400,000 Americans.” – Block

“The Horseracing Integrity Act would – as its name suggests – begin to restore some integrity to horseracing, helping…the business.” – Block

“This bill [HIA] is a gamechanger for equine athletes. It is a pro-animal, pro-industry measure that will not only help restore fairness to the sport….” – Block

(Note: The Horseracing Integrity Act would be bad for horses.)

“Racehorses are incredible athletes.” – former senior adviser Marty Irby

“The widespread use of both legal and illegal drugs is KILLING [his voice inflection in the video] an industry that employs 400,000 Americans.” – Irby

“Horseracing is a $40 billion a year industry that fuels our economy.” – Irby

(Note: Those employment and economic-impact numbers come directly from the industry and are basically pulled out of thin air.)

As an advocate, I recognize the great challenges presented by food and testing. It’s why I understand, though remain conflicted on, a subtler, more incremental approach: “Meatless Monday,” “Replace, Reduce, Refine.” But animal entertainment – that is, the enslavement, exploitation, and sometimes killing of animals as a way to pleasantly pass time? We – 21st Century America – should be ashamed at even having this conversation. It must end. Yesterday. Thing is, the HSUS agrees as it pertains to…

Circuses, Acting: “The HSUS opposes the use of captive wild animals as performers in circuses, film, television and commercials.”

Marine-Mammal Shows: “It is unacceptable for marine mammals to be held in captivity for the purpose of public display. [I]t should be rejected outright.”

Bullfighting: “The HSUS opposes bullfighting.”

Rodeos: “The HSUS opposes rodeos as they are commonly organized, since they typically cause torment and stress to animals, expose them to pain, injury or even death and encourage an insensitivity to and acceptance of the inhumane treatment of animals in the name of sport. Accordingly…we oppose bull riding, bronco riding, steer roping, calf roping, ‘wild horse racing,’ chuck wagon racing, steer tailing and horse tripping.”


Greyhound Racing: “The HSUS opposes greyhound racing. This practice leads to an unacceptable level of greyhound exploitation and suffering solely for profit. The industry promotes and tolerates an overproduction of dogs, resulting in an annual surplus numbering in the thousands, many of whom will end up being destroyed. The sheer waste of life is a scandal.”

Everything, that is, except horseracing, even as all it’s written on dogracing (and, as a matter of fact, the rodeo) clearly – at least to those with functioning brains – applies to the equine version. (Actually, I would argue that horseracing is worse because of slaughter. Talk about “scandal.”) The why here isn’t important. What is, what matters most, is what this says about the HSUS.

Horseracing is, by any and all definitions, animal exploitation. Absolutely, positively, unequivocally. Exploitation necessarily involves suffering of some kind. Exploitation, then, must be called abusive. Animal exploitation, then, is animal cruelty. By (very publicly) stating it is not philosophically opposed to horseracing, the HSUS is (very publicly) stating it is not philosophically opposed to all forms of animal cruelty. By actively trying to help Racing survive (thrive), the HSUS, with its enormous influence and reach, is abetting the continued condemnation of countless horses to lives of crushing negation and gruesome, terrifying deaths. And all for nothing more than $2 bets, entertainment. To say the HSUS is no friend to horses doesn’t quite capture it. What the HSUS has done/is doing to these beautiful animals is downright criminal.

(As if the above weren’t enough, consider these figures from 2018, the most recent available on GuideStar: In that year, the HSUS took in over $100 million in contributions and grants, had a payroll of almost $40 million, and was sitting on almost a quarter-billion dollars in assets at year-end. Imagine if just a portion of that were used on ending horseracing. Criminal, indeed.)

Horseracing Wrongs was recently featured in an ESPN online piece, “Racing on the Edge.” While I am certainly grateful for the opportunity, the finished product was something one might expect to find in an apologist rag like the Paulick Report or Thoroughbred Daily News. Bad enough that the “reform” message – that horseracing can be fixed (with a clear subtext that it is worth fixing) – was front and center, but to carry that message the network (manipulatively, in my estimation) cast a track vet, Jeff Blea, who was disabled in his former life as a jockey. A compelling human-interest story, sure, but I fear the average viewer’s sympathies will be grossly misdirected.

Anyhow, here are my major points of contention:

– Of the so-called equilateral triangle of vets, owners, and trainers, Blea says, “Everyone is doing the same thing…what’s good for the horse.” C’mon, ESPN, this is an industry rife with dirty play and you allow Blea’s untruth to go unchallenged?

– When Blea conceded that “[Thoroughbreds] are susceptible to injury because there’s a massive body…running on four spindly legs,” I awaited the logical followup: If they’re susceptible to fatal breakdowns, why are we forcing them to race in the first place – especially for nothing more than lousy $2 bets? Alas, it never came.

– Blea brings back the original Santa Anita boogeyman: the rainy winter (he actually used a pothole analogy). But earlier in the segment, I had said – factually, of course – that Santa Anita averages 50 dead annually, effectively debunking the hard-track line. Blea’s turn at distraction was allowed to stand.

– Then to the crux of the matter: “Animal welfare is critically important to people…so with that cluster [I had already established ’twas no “cluster”] of injuries we had last year, I think it created those reforms such as medication reform, veterinary oversight, more involvement on a day to day basis.” And: “But we can get close to [zero kills]. Every year, we can get closer to it, and a little closer the following year, and a little closer the following year. And if we keep doing that, that’s a good thing.”

Reform, as I’ve said repeatedly, is a ruse; “we can get close to zero” is a load of rubbish. And Blea knows it. What was required was tough, objective journalism, demanding this of Mr. Blea and the industry he represents: Where was this zeal for horse safety before it all hit the fan last spring? Nowhere, of course, because dead horses simply didn’t matter, or didn’t matter enough for them to get all hyper vigilant about it. How many thousands and thousands and thousands of racehorses were sacrificed prior to all this talk of “medication reform, veterinary oversight, more involvement on a day to day basis”? It’s a sad joke, really. The simple truth is this: The urgency we see today stems from livelihoods threatened, not concern for the horses.

And just in case anyone out there is still unconvinced that ESPN is compromised on this issue, in a story on racehorse fatalities, how many do you reckon they showed? Yup, you guessed it, not a one. Instead, we were treated to picturesque shots of Santa Anita and the horses and their people going about their workdays. (And although the piece was focused on breakdowns, there was nary a mention of Racing’s greatest evil of all – slaughter.) All this is to say, ESPN, you’ve sorely disappointed.

An example of what should have been shown:

Ignore everything you read and hear from the apologists. This is bad. Very bad. For an industry that has been under relentless siege for over a year now, the federal indictments that came down yesterday against some 27 people in, or associated with, American horseracing – including seven veterinarians (who merit an especial contempt) and renowned trainers Jason Servis (he of short-lived Derby winner Maximum Security) and Jorge Navarro (killer of X Y Jet) – couldn’t have come at a worse time. But it’s important not to get too far into the weeds on this.

As I wrote in the wake of PETA’s undercover investigation of another famous trainer’s (Steve Asmussen) barn in 2013, it’s more about the human-horse relationship than the case particulars. On this relationship, horseracing is more amoral than immoral, for traditional rules of morality simply do not apply. (Defrauding bettors is a topic best discussed elsewhere – i.e., I don’t care.) Racehorses are pieces of property, assets, things to be made, used, and discarded; you can no more act immorally toward your racehorse than you can your house or car. Accordingly, virtually anything goes. And that is the story here. And make no mistake, Navarro, Servis, and the rest, like Asmussen and Blasi before them, are horseracing, and anyone who says different is either lying, ignorant, or self-deluded.

Anyway, here are some of the indictments’ “highlights.”

“[Dealer Sarah] Izhaki represented that ‘The Devil’ was ‘[s]omething very new, you put it in the horse, you can use coke: it will come back negative.’

“On or about October 2, 2019, [veterinarian Louis] Grasso counseled [trainer Thomas] Guido on the proper administration of misbranded and adulterated PEDs, and specifically discussed the death of a horse that Guido was training and stated had been doped with a PED…noting, ‘it happens,’ that the deceased horse’s trainer had ‘probably over juiced him,’ and that the suspected cause of the horse’s death was not unusual: ‘I’ve seen that happen 20 times.’

“On or about October 17, 2019, Grasso reiterated to [assistant trainer Conor] Flynn his willingness to provide prescriptions without verifying medical necessity, advising…that his fee was ‘$100 per script,’ regardless of the prescription: ‘I don’t give the fuck what it is.’

“On or about October 23, 2019…Flynn indicated that he was willing to inject misbranded and adulterated PEDs of unknown composition into his racehorses because he was ‘a fucking desperado….’

“On or about January 2, 2016, [dealer Scott] Robinson forwarded the following customer complaint to [dealer Scott] Mangini: ‘I ordered some [PED-1]…starting bout 8 hours after I give the injection and for about 36 hours afterwards both my horses act like they are heavily sedated, can barely walk. Could I have a bad bottle of medicine, I’m afraid to give it anymore since this has happened three times.’ Commenting on this complaint, Robinson wrote, ‘here is another one.’

“On a February 1, 2019, intercepted call between [trainer Nicholas] Surick and [collaborator] Michael Tannuzzo discussing [trainer Jorge] Navarro, Surick stated: ‘You know how many fucking horses he fucking killed and broke down that I made disappear. … You know how much trouble he could get in…if they found out?’

“During an April 3, 2019, call between Navarro and [trainer Marcos] Zulueta, the two discussed, among other things, Navarro’s administration of PEDs to XY Jet in the weeks leading up to, and on the day of, the race in Dubai, and Navarro explained: ‘I gave it to him through 50 injections. I gave it to him through the mouth.’

“Following XY Jet’s victory in Dubai, [veterinarian] Seth Fishman congratulated Navarro on the win via text message, and Navarro replied, ‘Thank u boss u are a big part of it.’

“On or about May 29, 2019, Navarro held a conference call with the operators of a racing stable in California, for whom Navarro is a trainer, during which they discussed a series of poor performances by “Nanoosh,” a racehorse trained by Navarro. During the call, one of the operators questioned whether Navarro was ‘giving them all the shit,’ later asking, ‘Is this horse jacked out? Is he on fucking pills or what or are we just fucking -,’ to which Navarro responded, ‘Everything…he gets everything.’

“On a March 5, 2019, intercepted call between [trainer Jason] Servis and Navarro, Servis recommended ‘SGF’ to Navarro, stating, ‘I’ve been using it on everything almost.’ Navarro stated…that he ‘got more than 12 horses on’ SGF-1000….’

“[D]uring an intercepted call between Navarro and Tannuzzo, Navarro explained, in part, that he otherwise would have been caught doping: ‘[The racing official] would’ve caught our asses fucking pumping and pumping and fuming every fucking horse [that] runs today.’

You know it’s bad when even your staunchest supporters are calling you out. John Cherwa is, of course, an unabashed racing apologist and, not unrelated, the paper he writes for, the Los Angeles Times, is a decidedly biased source of information on all things racing. (I have twice submitted editorials offering the activists’ perspective, to no avail; I and others have repeatedly reached out to Times staff in an effort to correct the record and/or lodge objections to Cherwa’s reporting, but again, nothing.) So imagine my surprise when Mr. Cherwa’s Tuesday column began thus:

“We’ve often said that statistics can be used to prove whatever point you are trying to make. For example, Santa Anita likes to use one about the number of horses that have been on the track, racing and training, to prove that the horse fatality rate is much lower than what people think. It’s in the tens of thousands of horses for this meeting. While it is true horses have been on the track, as they are several days a week, if only for a jog, it’s a made-up figure. The track just extrapolates the number of horses it has and comes up with an average. It would be shredded by an auditor. When you’re going to give a number is [sic] the thousands or even millions of a percent, you better be 100% correct. It’s why I don’t use that figure.”

And what exactly are the numbers Santa Anita is reporting? On their “Horse Care & Safety” page, under “Statistics,” this: “Home to 2,000 horses over ten months of the year, Santa Anita Park is one of the largest equine training facilities in the world. Horses raced or trained at Santa Anita Park over 420,000 times in 2019 with a 99.991% safety rate.” But it gets worse: “407,578 HORSES HAVE RACED, WORKED, OR GALLOPED THE PAST YEAR AT SANTA ANITA PARK.” Factually incorrect: There aren’t even 400,000 active racehorses in the entire country – not even close.

More “statistics,” of course, follow – a barrage of numbers meant to distract and deceive. Overwhelmed, the average person (and much of the media) will likely retain but one: “99.991%” – or, exactly as intended. (In addition, you have to scroll through all the “good news” to get to the bad – the “incidents,” as they call them. How many give up long before then?) But even if that “safety rate” were true, what would it matter? Here’s what we do know with absolute certainty: (at least) 8 horses have died at Santa Anita just since the first of the year; 43 dead in 2019, 48 in 2018, 46 in 2017; since 2007, over 600 dead racehorses at Santa Anita. Each of those lives had inherent value; to reduce their unequivocally wanton deaths to a percentage or ratio (see also The Jockey Club’s celebrated “Equine Injury Database”) is as callous as it is sad.

Then there’s this: Two separate studies have shown that the majority of spent American racehorses are brutally and violently bled-out and butchered at “career’s” end. In fact, the industry itself has even admitted as much: Last fall, Alex Waldrop, head of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, told USA Today that 7,500 Thoroughbreds are going to slaughter annually. Let me repeat, one of the most powerful people in racing acknowledges that multiple thousands – it’s actually more in the 10,000-12,000 range – of his industry’s erstwhile “athletes” land in equine hell every year. This fact alone not only guts their vaunted “safety rate,” but renders their declarations of the “primacy of equine welfare” positively obscene.

But Cherwa’s generous spirit had not quite run its course. Reinforcing the unassailable truth that this is a failing industry, Cherwa went on to compare the numbers from this year’s President’s Day at Santa Anita to the one in 2000:

attendance, 2000: 20,450 (and, he notes, it was raining that day)
attendance, 2020: 7,003

That’s a 66% decrease.

handle, 2000: $10,569,081
handle, 2020: $6,213,445

That’s a 41% decrease.

number of races, 2000: 10
number of races, 2020: 8

That’s a 20% decrease.

number of starters, 2000: 63
number of starters, 2020: 48

That’s a 24% decrease.

With demand for the racing product in steady decline, and the cruelty and killing at long last laid bare for the whole world to see, can the end, then, be far off?