From Wayne County, NY comes word of an animal cruelty seizure involving, among others, 16 horses in various debased conditions. Wayne County Investigator Tom Littlefield (WHAM): “Faced with that [bad hay and moldy corn] the horses have nothing left to eat but trees, the bark off of trees and fence posts and things like that. They’re really in bad shape, the lucky ones are just the emaciated ones they have others with serious, serious injuries.” The alleged abuser, Cindy Denninger of Sodus, is a licensed Thoroughbred owner who has stabled horses at Finger Lakes Racetrack; reportedly, most of the victims were Finger Lakes castoffs.

First, in the abstract: We cannot protect horses from being tortured to death (yes, there were two dead horses found on Denninger’s property) when anyone can acquire horses, and when there exists no serious deterrent to torturing them. Anyone can acquire horses because horses are things to acquire, and there is no serious deterrent because serious deterrents are reserved for violations of others’ rights. Horses are not “others”; they have no rights. Vicious circle defined.

Worse, horses are chattel of the lowest order, manufactured, traded, used, and trashed purely on a human’s whim. There are no agencies regulating their titles and no safety nets monitoring their care. And if found abused, the victims of cruelty as defined by the law, there are no prosecutorial crusades initiated on their behalf and no sentencing messages from the bench. There is no justice, not even a pretense to justice, because there is no will within society – not at the legislative level, not at the enforcement level, not at the judicial level, and most importantly, not at the people level – to (seriously) punish property owners for committing wrongs against their property.

(One of Denninger’s neighbors writes (WHAM): “I am her neighbor and YES everyone complained every year for years to do something for these poor animals… They came and did NOTHING!!!” And a former neighbor: “I used to live right around the corner 10 years ago. The cops were called quite often way back then about the condition of the animals she had. It was horrible then.”)

On the present case, Paul Ubbink of the Ubbink racing-family vehemently defends both his track (FL) and his industry. While he concedes that there are “bad apple” trainers/owners delivering their “retired” into wicked hands, it is grossly unfair to paint all with the same brush. From the WHAM story: “It’s uninformed filth that spills from people’s mouths that makes the racing industry look bad. Just like every business in the world there are of course going to be bad people, not everyone in the racing industry is bad.” (For proof, he says, come visit Team Ubbink’s happy stock.) For its part, Finger Lakes is “horrified” and promises cooperation.

photo credit: Times of Wayne County
photo credit: Times of Wayne County

But here’s the problem: Ms. Denninger’s vile ways couldn’t have been a secret around the track. Ubbink: “Trust me, she is perfectly fine and this has been going on for a long time.” But only now, with a red-hot spotlight, is there talk of action: Robert Ubbink: “And as far as the racetrack having responsibility in this—they don’t. But you better believe they will never let her on the grounds again. Or ever allow her to ship one through the stable gate.” What I hear is that Finger Lakes could have intervened a long time ago, but did not. And the “good horsemen” could have applied some pressure toward that end, but did not. In my book, that makes them complicit. A “few bad apples”? Folks, the entire orchard is rotten.

Just to be clear, again, funneling a portion of racino slots money into purses and breeding is corporate welfare. Sure, the horse people call it a “state-business partnership.” But as the saying goes, it is what it is, and here is what it is: Expanded gaming is all the rage for cash-strapped states. Enter the horsemen. They say, since track owners already have the facilities for gambling, give them the Video Lottery Terminal (VLT) licenses. But when doing so, make sure you legally bind them to continue live racing and, as importantly, demand they send some of the loot our way.

As ThistleDown prepares for its second season with VLT revenue, excitement – for the horsemen, that is – pervades. And why not? As a recent press release notes, the more than 1,000 VLTs added last April “breathed new life into the sport of kings in Northeast Ohio.” “New life,” here, translates to a 28% increase in purses, with the Ohio Derby (July 19th) pot triple what it was last year. Yes, times are good, but not because of a successful product. If forced to rely on handle and attendance alone, much of horseracing, especially at the harness level, would be dead or dying by now. Racinos are welfare. Period.

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To anyone paying attention, horseracing is and always has been about human self-interest. The racehorses, no matter what the horse people say, are but means to an end, expendable assets. On Wednesday, no less than Keeneland further confirmed this truth when it announced that this summer it is converting from a synthetic track to “a state-of-the-art dirt surface.” Joe Drape (The New York Times, 4/3/14): “There is nothing state of the art about dirt. When it rains, it gets muddy. When it is cold, it can get frozen and hard.” Yes, dirt, the most dangerous surface in racing:

According to the Jockey Club, since 2009, dirt tracks recorded 2.08 fatal breakdowns per 1,000 starts; synthetic tracks, 1.22.

In 2009, Santa Anita’s synthetic track had a .90 breakdown rate. On dirt, the rates have been 3.45 in 2010, 2.94 in 2011, 2.89 in 2012, and 2.11 in 2013.

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By its own admission, Keeneland’s Polytrack surface “has set the standard for safety in the industry.” (Its .33 breakdown rate is one of the nation’s lowest.) So why the change? “Owners and trainers, especially those who compete at the highest levels of the sport, overwhelmingly prefer dirt tracks.” Translation: To get the Breeders’ Cup, we have to give them dirt. Minimizing deaths on the playing field? Irrelevant.

Currently, there are six American tracks using a synthetic surface. Synthetic, supposedly, reduces the number of catastrophic breakdowns. But because these surfaces are more costly to maintain than was originally promised, the trend, according to Ray Paulick (Paulick Report, 2/20/14) is back toward dirt – Del Mar, one of the six, is slated to revert in 2015. This, of course, should come as no surprise. As Paulick himself says, “…the majority of horsemen were never convinced that the safety and prevention of catastrophic injuries trumps everything else in the sport.”

Still, Paulick urges racing to reconsider: “An industry turning its back on a surface that has statistically proven to be safer is not a winning public relations move. …Injuries happen, whether it’s two horses running across a paddock of lush grass or a full field racing down the stretch of a dirt, synthetic or turf track. The goal for racing, no matter what the surface, is to reduce that number and make the sport safer and more palatable for the public.”

Well, Mr. Paulick, while true that injuries can and do happen in more natural settings, racehorses are dying for the most shameful of reasons – $2 bets. And no matter how much “reform” you and other apologists achieve, they will continue to die, on all surfaces, with or without drugs, even after the best of pre-race exams. Guaranteed. So, there is no cleaning up this “sport.” It is corrupt, from core out.

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