Saturday is the 151st running of the Belmont Stakes in New York, a competition between the country’s best 3-year-old thoroughbreds, and the last of the three races in the Triple Crown.
Organizers of Saturday’s race are hoping to avoid the controversy that dogged this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, the first two races in the series.
Judges disqualified the winner of the Kentucky Derby, Maximum Security, for straying into the path of another horse, a violation of the rules. Maximum Security’s owner is suing, contending the process to disqualify his horse was “bizarre and unconstitutional.”
Two weeks later at the Preakness, the jockey aboard Bodexpress fell off his mount when the starting gate opened.
The jockey was unhurt as Bodexpress ran with the other horses, riderless, avoiding efforts to corral him. He crossed the finish line 12th out of 13 horses and continued to jog around the track after the race was over.
The mishaps in this year’s Triple Crown are not the only reasons the sports world is taking a closer look at thoroughbred racing.
Twenty-seven horses at Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles have died since December, prompting California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein to demand the track be shut down until investigators figure out what led to the animals’ deaths.
Animal rights groups are wondering if “The Sport of Kings” has a future in the United States.
A bill currently before the U.S. House of Representatives, the Horseracing Integrity Act, would standardize safety rules for horses and jockeys across the industry. Most major U.S. sports have just one regulating body, but with horse racing, there are 38 jurisdictions, each with its own regulations. Those entities oversee about 100 racetracks around the country.
“This is an industry that routinely gives horses five and six injections of painkillers, anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers, sedatives every week just to calm them down and rev them up to race on a track,” Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told VOA. “We’ve really worked hard to try to bring improvements that will mean no horses are suffering and dying.”
Santa Anita has already banned trainers from giving horses medication on race days. Jockeys are also forbidden to whip horses.
Why are horses dying?
Experts believe one possible cause for the deaths is Santa Anita’s poor track surface, made tenuous because of heavy rain and mud. Thoroughbred horses have slender legs and small feet, with muscles and bones that must support tremendous weight. A slight misstep can cause a horse to break a leg, a severe injury that could lead to euthanasia.
Other horses have simply dropped dead from heart attacks.
The tragedy extends beyond Santa Anita. An industry study found that an average of 10 horses a week died at U.S. racetracks in 2018.
“The public has evolved on the issue of using animals for entertainment, and they’re not going to stand for the kinds of deaths that we have seen at Santa Anita. For the first time, the racing industry is paying attention to what needs to be done,” Guillermo said.
Sport losing fans
The negative publicity surrounding thoroughbred racing has executives worried that the public, especially young people, are not embracing a sport known for its primarily middle-aged, white male fan base.
Thoroughbred racing is competing for the entertainment dollar, and the industry is trying to keep up.
Joe Harper is president of Del Mar, the legendary San Diego track founded in 1937 by entertainer Bing Crosby.
“You’re here for a party, you’re not just here for the races,” Harper told VOA.
Del Mar’s summer season includes concerts, wine tastings, beer festivals, chili cook-offs and family fun days.
Harper said he would like to see other tracks, particularly those troubled with poor attendance and crumbling infrastructure, adopt Del Mar’s model.
“You really have to look at this beyond your product. We marketed our venue. Opening Day in Del Mar is the biggest social event in San Diego every year, and the media coverage is phenomenal. I want to be in the entertainment business, not just the racing business,” Harper said.
Harper disagrees with PETA and others who classify racing as a cruel sport.
“We’re in this game because we love horses. There’s no better care given to any animal than a race horse,” he said.
Guillermo called that an “odd statement” and predicted horse racing becoming extinct like attractions such as animal circuses.
“This is an industry that has traditionally cast off thousands of thoroughbreds a year to auction and to slaughter. That industry has a lot to explain,” she said.