Paul McCartney once famously said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” Not everyone, of course, but you get the point. For the record, all animal slaughter is horrific. All of it. And the animals we routinely raise (in the cruelest of conditions), slaughter, butcher, and eat are just as intelligent and every bit as sentient as horses. But, consistent with this site, the focus here is on horse slaughter, perhaps the worst of racing’s wrongs.

Last year, 59,812 American horses were slaughtered in Canada. Thanks to the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, we know, more or less, how they died. The following comes from a 2010 undercover investigation at two of the country’s four equine slaughterhouses: Bouvry and Viandes Richelieu.

Three veterinarians reviewed the footage:

Dr. Debi Zimmerman:
“As a prey species, horses are naturally fearful and suspicious of anything they have not been conditioned to accept. All things at these slaughterhouses would fall into the category of unnatural, fear-producing stimuli; not the least of which is the vocalizations of fearful horses, the strange plant workers, the metal chute systems, the loud droning of machinery, the blaring music (at Bouvry), horses being felled in-front of or beside them (Richelieu), the smell of warm blood in the stun box and that spewing from the throats of horses only a few feet away from them, and the stench of excrement in high concentration in the chute system that is released from fearful and dying horses.”

“Every second a horse must remain isolated and confined in a strange situation, can be agonizing. Many horses were left over 3 minutes prior to being shot, including one horse left while workers hosed down the kill floor and went for their 10 minute break (#75), and one horse at Richelieu (Horse #1) which was left in the stun box for 20 minutes. One obviously panicked horse at Richelieu, flailed about in the stun box for nearly 3 minutes, before the shooter finally attended to him.”

“At Bouvry, many horses demonstrated voluntary movements, or obvious rhythmic breathing, upon being suspended. This indicates these horses were likely conscious as they were being hoisted high into the air with one leg bearing their entire weight, and while their necks were slashed on both sides (which entails using a sawing motion of the knife). A full bleed out takes minutes, and as some horses had their feet chopped off within 45 seconds of the throat slash, some horses may also have experienced the pain associated with this procedure as well.”

“At Richelieu, horses were routinely subjected to excessive whippings on their bodies, excessive use of electric prods (both stick and hand-held), and some struck repeatedly across their faces (i.e.: Miniature horses).”

“[The shooter] allowed a horse that became cast in the stun box, to flail about for almost 3 minutes while he carried on a casual conversation with a co-worker; he forced horses to step over the legs of fallen horses which had not yet been removed from the now very crowded stun box, and, he led horses through improperly closed gates on which they subsequently struck their heads. The shooter also whipped an older and obviously lame horse (#93) 19 times.”

“The fact that a .22 calibre rifle does not typically deliver a kill shot, along with the high rate of mis-shots delivered by the shooter, this excessive time lag between stunning and bleed offers numerous horses the opportunity to regain consciousness while they are being processed.”

“In addition to this psychological pain, these horses also suffered physically in numerous ways. These included slips and falls, fractures, numerous mis-shots with some horses requiring a second or even third bullet; some horses regaining consciousness before or while being suspended by one leg, and/or when their throats were being slashed: excessive traumatization during assembly; excessive whippings of their bodies and across their faces (Richelieu), and excessive use of electric prods (Richelieu).”

Dr. Mary Richardson:
“Far too often, the shooter was not able to render the animal unconscious on his first shot. Then, the horse experiences great pain for a prolonged period before the next shots are fired. It often took 3 or 4 bullets before the horse lay still. …sometimes [the time between shots] was several minutes.”

“The next step is shackling the back leg, and hanging the animal to bleed it. Before this is done, the animal must be unconscious. I never saw one attempt on the tapes to make sure of this.”

“Too often, the horse would be hung up, and then show conscious movement, and then have to be shot again, sometimes several times.”

“Because there were no attempts to ensure unconsciousness, it is possible horses are dying by being bled out…”

Dr. Mel Richardson:
“Loud music echoing off the walls, horses whinnying in fear, people yelling and using whips and electric prods and the smell of blood and death all equate to equine hell.”

Another Canadian plant (Natural Valley)…

In Mexico, a small puntilla knife is used to sever the spinal cord. Paralyzed but often still sensible, the horse is shackled, hoisted, slashed, and exsanguinated.

Twyla Francois, Canadian horse-slaughter expert:
“[They are] so frightened. You can see them in the [auction] ring, that they search the ring looking for a friendly face. We have been comfort for them, and then we take them to slaughter. We see this at the slaughterhouses too, where they’re still seeking out affection from even the slaughterhouse workers themselves.”


“And one thing we saw that really broke my heart was, you would see the workers walking by the pens and the horses would rush the pens, looking for comfort from these men who were going to kill them. It just seems like such a betrayal. …nothing can prepare them for the journey they have ahead of them after they’ve been given up.”

Defend that, horseracing.

Miss McKeown, a 3-year-old filly making her 5th career start, broke down and died yesterday in the 9th race at Aqueduct. The kill occurred on-track. This single death, in a $20,000 claiming race a world away from sunny Santa Anita, serves as the perfect microcosm for horseracing. While the official NYRA replay talks of Miss McKeown’s “very poor start” (perhaps this tragic creature was amiss from the gate), causing her to “lag the field by several lengths,” her snapped leg, the ambulance, the screen (to hide the ugliness), and the pentobarbital garnered not a single mention. Nothing. But, as always, we get the winner’s circle. Racing is but one lie, deception, and diversion after another.

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With the Lasix ban for juveniles ending with this past weekend’s Breeders’ Cup and a trend toward keeping the drug raceday legal in the U.S., I thought it appropriate to revisit these words written by equine veterinarian Sid Gustafson in The New York Times a couple years back (10/28/11). At the time, Gustafson believed that Lasix was on its way out.

“The only ones who benefit from racehorses being medicated on raceday are the attending veterinarians and, subsequently, the veterinary surgeons. …the science continues to demonstrate that chronic use of raceday drugs degrades the quality and safety of racing while impoverishing the welfare of racehorses. Raceday medications increase the breakdown rate.”

“Lasix begets a plethora of additional drug use. Wherever pre-race Lasix is permitted, additional drugs are administered to most all of the diuretically-infused racing horses by their trainers and attending veterinarians. Lasix allows and encourages a lot of drug use. It legitimized the stage for the medication mentality that has haunted racing in recent years with all the notable breakdowns, sudden deaths and wrecks.”

“Lasix or Salix is furosemide, a potent diuretic that dilutes the urine and lowers the pulmonary blood pressure. The drug alters the electrolyte balance of racing horses and makes them vulnerable to heat stroke and metabolic dysfunction. As well, chronic diuretic use interferes with locomotory abilities required to run biomechanically sound by altering cardiac function, muscle function, nerve function, and most every other physiologic function.”

“Diuretics weaken horses. These days there is little doubt that pharmaceutically weakened horses are more vulnerable to breaking down. It is not surprising that Lasix jurisdictions have more breakdowns than drug-free jurisdictions. We should have known. Now we know.”

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“In two years, American racing jurisdictions are scheduled to join the rest of the racing horse world and eliminate Lasix in the United States and Canada. …Good riddance to Lasix and all the drug use it has encouraged and facilitated. Good riddance to Lasix and all the electrolyte imbalances, metabolic dysfunctions, shortened careers, breakdowns and weaknesses the drug has caused…”

The above is not from some layperson bemoaning racing’s drug culture. Dr. Gustafson is a renowned expert in the field – practitioner, professor, regulatory vet, speaker, and writer – with over 30 years experience. It’s also worth noting that Gustafson is not against horseracing; in fact, he cherishes the “sport.” The facts reviewed: Raceday Lasix is given to virtually all American starters, and it’s bad for horses. Case closed (again).

Previous posts on Lasix:

“Drowning in Their Own Blood”
“Lasix: Cheating, American Style”
“How U.S. Trainers Defend Lasix”

In its Breeders’ Cup wrap-up (11/3/13), The New York Times used words like “awe-inspiring,” “breathtaking,” “beautiful,” and “thrilling” to describe the action. But, as indicated by the article’s title (“Moving Moments Send Shivers, Both Good and Bad”), there was a smattering of black (or red) in Santa Anita: Points Offthebench (dead), Centralinteligence (vanned off, had surgery), Secret Compass (dead).

The Times notes that Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, Secret Compass’ trainer, “was visibly shaken by the death.” But I wonder, was the $200 million lifetime earner similarly affected when he lost seven horses to “Sudden Death Syndrome” – defined by the Los Angeles Times as “when a healthy horse, training or racing, returns to the barn and dies, inexplicably, within an hour” – in a recent 16-month period (Nov 2011 – Mar 2013)? Maybe, maybe not. But with 2-year-old Secret Compass having just won a $250,000 Grade 1 at Santa Anita in September and seemingly well on her way to a lucrative career, the guess here is that this one stung just a bit more.

Baffert, of course, recovered in plenty of time to enjoy two wins totaling $3.5 million later in the Breeders’ Cup day. Funny how money and adulation so quickly heal the wounds.

The trainer, following his BC Sprint victory with Secret Circle, just four hours after losing his other “Secret” to a broken leg…

photo credit: Gregory Bull, Associated Press
photo credit: Gregory Bull, Associated Press

The following, unless otherwise noted, were “vanned off” American tracks this weekend.

2-year-old Kela Flatts, Charles Town, race 1
2-year-old Petite Chat, Delta Downs, race 5 (not vanned off but “broke through the rail,” DNF)
2-year-old Like a Deputy, Delta Downs, race 5 (not vanned off but “shied from the whip… and lost his jockey,” DNF)
4-year-old South Forty, Golden Gate, race 2 (“pulled up lame,” vanned off)
2-year-old Royal Pop Lbh, Lone Star, race 5 (“broke through gate,” vanned off)
4-year-old Runaway Crypto, Remington, race 6 (“in apparent distress,” vanned off)
5-year-old Centralinteligence, Santa Anita, race 8
9-year-old So Big Is Better, Santa Anita, race 11
3-year-old One Hyde Park, Thistledown, race 1 (broke down)
5-year-old Ragetta, Thistledown, race 8 (broke down)
3-year-old Rocking Ta Mr Dean, Will Rogers Downs, race 7

5-year-old Big and Bright, Charles Town, race 6 (bled, vanned off)
5-year-old Dollicious, Delta Downs, race 1 (lame, vanned off)
4-year-old Indy El Nino, Hawthorne, race 2
4-year-old Regent Fan, Los Alamitos, race 5
4-year-old Maid of Dishonor, Penn National, race 5
6-year-old Cognashene, Pine Mountain (steeplechase), race 3 (not vanned off but fell over 3rd fence, 2nd DNF in last 3 starts)
2-year-old Secret Compass, Santa Anita, race 4 (confirmed dead)
4-year-old Trinniberg, Santa Anita, race 10 (not vanned off but “bleeding from the mouth”)
5-year-old Tanana Tango, Suffolk Downs, race 6 (fell, bled, DNF)

4-year-old Misscomplicated (1st career start), Golden Gate, race 7 (not vanned off but “bleeding from the nose,” DNF)
2-year-old Nothin’ But Tough, Gulfstream, race 6 (not vanned off but “bled while racing” – and winning)
4-year-old Chuvalo, Mountaineer, race 7
6-year-old Fly Away, Portland Meadows, race 8
7-year-old Preacher Willie, Portland Meadows, race 10
5-year-old Big Blue Fever, Thistledown, race 7 (not vanned off but “pulled up lame”)
5-year-old Little Sam French, Thistledown, race 7 (broke down)