“Those who think they can simply wish away a legal, multibillion-dollar enterprise with a rich history that employees thousands, supports local economies and is enjoyed by millions are fooling themselves. … The reality is that, for now, no matter how many horses stumble to their deaths at Santa Anita; no matter how much protesters shout at racing fans as they pull their coolers through the gates of the Saratoga Race Course; no matter what kind of negative press follows the industry’s safety record, labor practices and administration, the Sport of Kings will see another summer. And another summer after that. Bet on it.”

And so begins a shallow and terribly misleading editorial by The Daily Gazette (Schenectady) editorial board last Sunday. Most glaringly, it utterly ignores the sea changes in the “animal-entertainment” sector over just the past few years: Ringling shuttered, SeaWorld exposed and in decline, rodeo prohibitions spreading, and most relevant to the issue at hand – dogracing in its death throes.

When Floridians voted overwhelmingly to outlaw dogracing last November, they did so because it was rightly deemed cruel, wrong, unethical, or whatever term you care to use. In fact, dogracing is outright banned in 41 states – banned, as in rejected by the people as morally intolerable. The board, I’m sure, is very much aware of this, but lacks the courage to declare what any intelligent, objective person can easily discern – in regard to the welfare of the animals involved, horseracing is dogracing. No need to guess, however, whence comes this cowardice – money, as the board makes clear at the top. Dogracing is seedy tracks, lowlife bettors, hand-to-mouth owners – a two-bit gambling business. Horseracing is Churchill Downs, Tom Brady, Stronachs and sheikhs – “The Sport of Kings.”

Locally, horseracing is the Saratoga behemoth, with its teeming turnstiles and bustling boutiques. Never mind the 14 horses who perish there every summer. There’s cash to be had and jobs to be filled, and far be it from us, a mere local newspaper, to get in the way of that. But here again, the board fails to present a full and honest picture: Relative to the industry at large, Saratoga is an aberration. It, and maybe five or six other tracks – out of about 100 – are financially sound. Most of the rest are being wholly propped up by subsidies, and for a good portion of those – including all of the harness variety – everything said about dogracing above fully applies.

The editorial goes on to cite the latest desperate attempt by the industry to assuage an increasingly uneasy public: the “Thoroughbred Safety Coalition.” “Encouraging progress,” they call it. Again, a bit of homework by the board would have revealed that this is what Racing does each and every time the heat gets hot – Eight Belles in ’08, Aqueduct in ’12, Del Mar in ’15 and ’16, Saratoga in ’17 – promise “reform” and a “commitment to equine welfare,” and all the while the bodies continue to pile up.

As to the aforementioned “shouting,” since it is us (HW) doing the protesting, I deeply resent both the characterization and the imagery it evokes. We are there to educate. We do this by holding fact-based banners and signs; respectfully offering informational leaflets; and, yes, by chanting – which as even a middle-school student could tell you is a time-honored tool of protest employed by every great social-justice movement in our nation’s history. This past summer, any shouting that did occur came at the provocation of patrons – more specifically, men getting in the faces of some of our female protesters and calling them the vilest of names. And I for one will push back on that every single time.

Look, I know there are lots of people out there who think we have no chance, that Racing is too big, too powerful, too entrenched. I know there are others who simply deride us as “extremists.” When I hear this, I think of Dr. King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – “At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. … But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.” – and take solace in the knowledge that all social-justice activists who went before were, too, dismissed as crazy (“Gay marriage?” “You must be joking!”). Truth is, once begun, these fights for rights – be they labor, civil, gender, sexual, etc. – go one way. And so it will be with animal rights, including those of enslaved racehorses, no matter how hard the small-minded reactionaries resist. In fact, it’s happening as we speak.

Go for Wand broke down in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Belmont Park; she was euthanized where she lay. Sports Illustrated’s William Nack penned a now-famous article entitled “Requiem at Belmont,” with the lede “ON A CALAMITOUS BREEDERS’ CUP DAY, THE CHAMPION FILLY GO FOR WAND SNAPPED HER RIGHT FORELEG, FELL TO THE TRACK AND HAD TO BE DESTROYED.”

“Calamitous,” indeed: Two other horses died at Belmont that day – Mr. Nickerson, of an apparent heart attack (at four), and Shaker Knit, who suffered “a severe spinal injury” after falling over the dying Mr. Nickerson and was subsequently “destroyed” – yes, they still used that word back then. Anyway, here are excerpts from that piece. (Toward the end, the trainer says, “They’ve had too many horses breaking down here lately. That doesn’t happen at Belmont Park. Maybe they’ve got the track too hard or something.” Sound familiar 30 years later?)

“Requiem at Belmont” (Sports Illustrated, 11/5/90)

“Go for Wand was lying on the racetrack near the winner’s circle, her eyes showing panic and rimmed with white, when all at once she stopped struggling and was motionless, except for the rapid rising and falling of her sides, like a bellows.

“Outrider Steve Erck was kneeling at Go for Wand’s head, his right knee pressed into her neck so that she could not rise, while a woman, crying hysterically, pleaded with him from behind a fence a few feet away: ‘Help her…. Please help her….’ It was chilly in the shade at Belmont Park, and steam rose from the filly’s moist, perspiring flank. Erck stroked the 3-year-old’s neck and face, and then he reached over and patted her on the nose. ‘Easy, girl,’ Erck murmured. ‘Just relax. It will just be a few minutes now. It’ll be over soon.’

“Trainer Billy Badgett’s face was ashen as he stared down at his filly. Her right foreleg, from the ankle down, was broken so badly it was bent upward, like the toe of a ski. Badgett knew what had to be done. He turned his back to the scene, and his eyes rolled up as he walked away. ‘Damn!’ he said. Badgett’s bride of three weeks, Rosemary, who is Go for Wand’s exercise rider, broke down and cried when she saw what had happened. ‘My baby,’ she wept. ‘Look at my baby…. I can’t believe this is even happening.’

“Indeed, on Breeders’ Cup day last Saturday at New York’s Belmont Park, an afternoon given over to celebrating the strongest and swiftest performers in thoroughbred racing, the event that everyone had been waiting for, the match between the two best females in the land, champions Go for Wand and Bayakoa, turned into a nightmare, a horror that left horsemen and horseplayers alike weeping openly.

“Just a few minutes earlier, as she was leading Bayakoa by a head at the 16th pole, with only 110 yards to go in the Distaff, Go for Wand suddenly stumbled. She pitched forward onto her knees, catapulting jockey Randy Romero over her head, and then did a somersault, ending up on her back, half under the inside rail, her feet flailing in the air as she struggled to turn over. Finally she righted herself and, as if trying to run away from the pain in her shattered leg, she staggered across the track on three legs and nearly fell. The crowd of 51,000 gasped, some averting their eyes while others watched in stony silence, frozen by the horror of the spectacle. Hundreds of fans pressed against the grandstand apron’s rail, trying to get near her as Erck caressed her and, finally, as a track veterinarian put her to sleep with a lethal injection.

“The Breeders’ Cup series of seven races, each with a purse worth at least $1 million, had begun ominously earlier in the afternoon. In the six-furlong Sprint, one of the fastest racehorses in New York, Mr. Nickerson, apparently suffered a heart attack while racing into the far turn. He collapsed directly in front of Shaker Knit, who fell over the dying horse. Jockey Chris Antley, on Mr. Nickerson, suffered a broken clavicle. Shaker Knit’s jockey, Jose Santos, was unhurt, but his mount, who sustained a severe spinal injury in the spill, was later destroyed. …

“So the Distaff was the race of the day, and until tragedy struck it was the epic race everyone had dreamed it would be. Go for Wand, the 3-5 favorite, dashed to the lead out of Post 2, but Bayakoa quickly joined her on the outside, and the two raced head and head through the first quarter, with Go for Wand a bob in front. They raced as a team down the backside. The filly opened a half-length lead as they passed the five-eighths pole nearing the far turn, but jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. asked Bayakoa for more juice as they made the turn, and the marc, digging down, edged back to within a head of Go for Wand.

“Belmont Park was beginning to rock. … In the grandstand, along the fence near the pole, Badgett strained to see over the crowd as the two horses raced past him. As they rushed past the pole, Go for Wand bobbled once. She grabbed the ground in front of her, as if trying to pick herself up, but then she stumbled again, this time falling to her knees and suddenly spinning, all neck and legs, in the air.

“Trainer Mike Freeman was walking toward the paddock and listening to Durkin’s call and the rising crescendo of noise when, as if someone had turned off a radio, he could hear nothing. ‘The place went silent,’ Freeman says. ‘Just like that. I knew something had happened.’

“In the clubhouse box seats, Mrs. Lunger’s son-in-law and racing manager, Richie Jones, bolted from his chair and sprinted down the aisle toward the staircase. He was screaming, ‘Oh, no!’ … As Romero hit the ground, he rolled over and looked up. He saw her mangled leg. ‘Oh, my god!’ he said. …

“Erck, on his palomino Mikey, was watching the race just past the wire. He saw the filly come to her feet and limp piteously across the track. Erck rode to her side, grabbed her loose left rein and jumped to the ground next to her. Unable to stand, Go for Wand was now on her knees by the outside fence and leaning against Erck. He could see the blood and bone of her dangling right ankle, where the suspensory ligaments had been ruptured and the cannon bone fractured. …

“Jones dashed over to the filly and, seeing the broken foot, put his hands over his ears and reeled back in anguish. Badgett joined him by the filly’s side. One look at the injury was enough. ‘I knew that was it,’ Badgett said. Turning away, he walked over to Romero, who was lying on a stretcher on the track. The rider, while uninjured, seemed to Badgett to be in shock. ‘She stepped in a hole, Billy!’ Romero cried. ‘She stepped in a hole.’ …

“Jones approached a New York Racing Association veterinarian. ‘Get it done,’ Jones told him. ‘Get it done as quickly and painlessly as possible, but get it done.’ Workers set up a large blue screen between the filly and the crowds, and Dr. Neil Cleary administered the injection. The filly was gone within a minute. …

“Dr. Jim Belden, former chief veterinarian for the New York Racing Association, later said that Go for Wand had actually fractured her ankle 12 strides before she went down. ‘Each step compounded the fracture,’ he said. ‘Her momentum, heart and determination carried her those last 12 strides. She sealed her own doom by continuing to run. Had she pulled up and said, ‘I ain’t gonna run no more,’ it might have worked out differently. But that wasn’t Go for Wand.’

“‘This was the soundest horse I ever had,’ Badgett said. ‘I don’t know what’s going on. They’ve had too many horses breaking down here lately. Two broke down in races yesterday. Three yesterday morning, including Gorgeous. That doesn’t happen at Belmont Park. Maybe they’ve got the track too hard or something. I don’t know.’

“Badgett stood in the doorway of his shed. Stall 33, Go for Wand’s place, had a clean bed of shavings. The door was open and the webbing clipped to the door, as if awaiting her return. ‘This is not the way it was supposed to end,’ he said.”

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.