Friday night, the Los Angeles Times ran this headline in its sports section:

“Santa Anita breathes a sigh of relief after no horses die on first day back”

Imagine that.

The article then went on to quote some racetrack patrons:

“I’m holding my breath.”

“Everyone is worried about the horses. All I’m thinking is, if anything untoward happens today…”

The article continued: “The race ends clean, all seven horses crossing the finish line, and only then is there audible applause from the crowd… No horse died. ‘OK,’ said racegoer Frank Reynoso, taking a deep breath. ‘That’s one.’ But because there was no clear reason for the deaths [not true – it is horseracing itself], there could be no clear answers. That’s why so many people showed up at the track Friday with nerves jangling and fingers crossed. For now, there is relief. In eight races, there were no fatalities, which brought a giant collective sigh.”

Leaving aside for a moment that something “untoward” – a euphemism if ever there was one – did happen just two days later (the 23rd “untoward” thing on the Santa Anita track since New Year’s), what do the above say about a day at the races? If, in the course of being entertained by captive animals, you are “holding your breath” that none will die, if your “nerves are jangled” and “fingers crossed,” if all is tense while awaiting the finish and safe returns anxiously counted, perhaps, just perhaps, it’s time to re-think your participation in and support of that product.

More to that point: The aforementioned fan Reynoso added, “We’re saddened by everything that has happened…it’s been hard to see. But they’re going to race whether we’re here or not, and we love it here, so we’re coming.” To which I reply:

To those who wager on horseracing, we implore you to reconsider. And ultimately, you hold all the cards – no more bets, no more races; no more races, no more kills. And – no more abusing unformed bodies; no more extreme, relentless confinement; no more whipping; no more drugging and doping; no more buying and selling and trading and dumping. No more auctions, no more kill-buyers, no more transport trucks, no more abattoirs. No more maiming, destroying; pain, suffering. No more.

In a landscape that abounds with other gambling options – casinos, lotteries, real sports involving autonomous human beings – hasn’t the time at long last arrived to let the racing-horse be? You, the bettor, have within the capacity for mercy. We ask only that you exercise it. Please. For the horses.

The article, by the way, is also noteworthy for this:

“The crowd was reminded of the trouble before even entering the track, as several dozen protesters stood on a grassy area outside the front gate waving signs and chanting. ‘Horse racing needs to be abolished,’ said Heather Hamza, leading what she called a group of concerned citizens backed by the group known as Horseracing Wrongs. ‘The world is watching this track. Every horse that is killed here will make big headlines. We need to be part of those headlines because we’re telling them to stop it.'” Thank you, Heather, and to all who came and stood for the voiceless.

“Death is delivered pink.” And so begins an ESPN The Magazine article (5/4/09) on the track veterinarian’s unenviable role as killer of the broken. Racing calls it euthanasia, of course, but that’s simply self-absolution. In any event, this is no indictment of the vets, for as long as they continue to hold races, someone must do the dirty work.

The article follows Lauren Canady, the vet at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, early in 2009. In the first race, Canady is summoned, like a medic to the battlefield, by the radio call “A horse is down!” 4-year-old Heelbolt’s ankle has snapped. It is a horrific injury, ankle “dangling and shattered, attached only by skin,” arteries split, and “blood everywhere.” As Canady pulls up, Heelbolt is still calm, the severe pain not yet arrived. On a 0-5 scale, this is a 5. Definite euthanasia.

The scene is set: “His eyes, once coldly fixed on the track, are teary and dilated. His breathing, once quick, has quickened even more. His coat, once shiny from the pumping of oil and sweat glands, has dulled.” The vet goes to work. Stroking “his neck to say good-bye,” she administers a mix of pentobarbital, for deep sleep, and succinylcholine, to shut down the heart and brain.

And then: “Heelbolt falls under the railing, landing shoulder first, his nose in the dirt. He blinks rapidly for 10 seconds or so until his eyes, once beautifully alert, are blank. As his fellow horses, having just finished the race, jog by, his life is measured in shallow breaths – until he is no longer breathing, until he is just 1,200 pounds of expired muscle, his bloody, shattered leg hooked on a railing. It’s hard to know what a peaceful death looks like, but this isn’t it.”

Horses are not, as the author declares, “born to compete,” and heartbreaking stories like Heelbolt’s should not be found on the pages of ESPN. For all our moral posturing, especially concerning animals, passive acceptance of this quote from the article proves that some of our sensibilities remain frozen in antiquity: “…and we’re reminded that one of our country’s oldest sports is one in which the athletes sometimes die during competition.” Deaths on the playing field? Is this 21st Century America or 1st Century Rome? I half expect Rod Serling to appear.

Horseracing-as-sport is an obscenity of the highest order. There are, of course, many reasons why, but perhaps the three most obvious are these: First, the athletes in question are utterly unaware of their status as such – worse, they are in fact pieces of chattel, animal slaves. Second, participation in said sport is compelled by whip-wielding human beings. Third, and most telling of all, death on the field of play.

That horseracing kills horses is settled fact. But what most of the public doesn’t know is the magnitude of that killing, nor in how it relates to other accepted sports. We estimate that roughly 1,000 racehorses are killed on “game day” (just racing, not including training) each year. In comparison, here are the game-related death totals for the four major U.S. professional sports leagues over their entire histories:

Major League Baseball, founded 1903, 116 seasons – one death (Ray Chapman)
National Hockey League, founded 1917-18, 101 seasons – one death (Bill Masterton)
National Football League, founded 1920, 98 seasons – one death (Chuck Hughes)
National Basketball Association, founded 1946-47, 72 seasons – zero deaths

In other words, horseracing kills about as many in one day as the other four have in their collective 387 years. A sport? America, you’ve been hoodwinked.

At least four racehorses were killed on U.S. tracks Thursday…

Mark My Style “suffered a soft tissue injury while breezing” at Belmont – “euthanized.” He was six and had been raced 33 times (but, curiously, nothing since last September).

Awesome Alma “was injured mid stretch” in the 4th at Pimlico “then was euthanized.” She was four and was “For Sale” at $5,000 prior to dying.

Mile Street “broke down and was put down” in the 1st at Presque Isle. He was three; this was his debut.

Turf Prince “was pulled up mid-turn” in the 1st at Charles Town – “euthanized.” He was four and coming off a 9th-of-10 in a $5,000 claiming just 19 days prior.

So, that’s (at least) four equine “athletes” killed in a single U.S. Racing day, three of those “in competition.” For comparison, in the cumulative 312-year history of the three major American professional sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA), there have been but two deaths during, or resulting from an injury suffered in, games. Two in 312 years. Horseracing a sport? How can anyone utter those words with a straight face?

(sources: NYS Gaming Commission, Equibase)

No words necessary…

Epsom Downs (England), 1966

Prescott Downs (Arizona), 2000

Pimlico (Barbaro’s eventually-fatal injury), 2006

Churchill Downs (Eight Belles snaps both front ankles), 2008

Aqueduct, 2009 (Private Details killed)

Arlington, 2009 (Born to Be killed)

Japan, 2010

Galway (Ireland), 2011

Charles Town, 2012

Monticello, 2013

Wexford Racecourse (Ireland), 2013

Del Mar, 2014 (Yes She’s Unusual killed)

Ffos Las Racecourse (Wales), 2016

Gulfstream, 2016 (Kandoo killed)

“Under Tack” Trials