It’s clear that something is happening in American racing. Something is very wrong, and a storm is brewing.
At Santa Anita alone, since December 26th, 21 horses have died either whilst racing or training. That’s 21 horses suffering fatal injuries within the space of 3 months. Instead of ignoring the issue, the track has since closed for testing and review, announcing that track officials are “conducting a comprehensive evaluation of all existing safety measures and current protocol”. This is definitively a step in the correct direction, especially within a country like the USA, where trainers tend to demonstrate a complete unwillingness to change their ways, even after a string of notorious breakdowns, a country where infamously tens of the top trainers threatened to boycott the entire Breeder’s Cup Festival, just at the simple suggestion of banning lasix from their juvenile races.
Although it in no way should have taken the deaths of 21 horses in order for something to happen, thats not what the issue is here. The issue is that the ‘track officials’, who have been hired to discover what’s really happening at Santa Anita, are acting for the Stronach Group, the board that owns Santa Anita and just a handful of other tracks located across the country.
Ordinarily, British racing fans will be used to the British Horseracing Authority conducting inquiries into the safety and welfare of horses at tracks across the country, such as the inquiry into the deaths of six horses across the week at the Cheltenham festival. The difference here being that they are working seemingly unbiased, and one, uniform, National Governing Body.
Just a quick look at their site demonstrates the vast amount of responsibilities that the British Racing Authority has. This includes: race planning; disciplinary procedures; protecting the integrity of the sport; research and improvements in equine science and welfare; inspections of training establishments and conducting investigations into breaches of the Rules of Racing. As well as this, the BHA often acts as a voice for those within racing, especially when it comes to controversies from the mainstream media, such as the six deaths at Cheltenham last year. They also seemingly act as voice for the stable staff within racing, ensuring that everyone who works in racing works within a safe environment, and that as well as being physically taken care of, they are also mentally taken care of, with many services available to them.
In order to compare this, we next have to take a look at how governing bodies in the USA work. Its fair to say that generally in the US, racing is ran by state, take for example the NYRA, who governs three tracks that are located within the state of New York. Another example of a governing authority in the US is the Stronach Group, who owns the aforementioned Santa Anita Park as well as Gulfstream Park, Pimlico Racecourse and Laurel Park Racecourse. The issue here comes with the fact that the Stronach Group is classed as an “entertainment and real estate company”, meaning their intentions may not purely about the horses.
This split ownership and management of American Racetracks means that it is not uncommon for different states to have different rules, especially when it comes to drugs penalisation, tack legislation and horse regulation. This can lead to miscommunication between different authorities, potentially leading to cases of poor animal welfare being missed. This miscommunication can, for instance, be seen through the licensing of trainers. What may count as a qualified trainer in one state might not be a qualified trainer in another.
This is a very contrasting method to that used in the UK, wherein all trainers are required to complete a Level 3 Diploma in Racehorse Care and management, have a minimum of 5 years of experience in a racing yard, and having completed pre-license training courses at either the BRS or the NRC.
However, the simple lack of any coordinated management of racetrack workers isn’t the only issue that comes from the almost complete lack of a universal governing system.
As is usual, the mainstream media have managed to twist the tale of the Santa Anita shutdown for the worst. Of course, the fact that it took 21 horses being fatally injured for anything to be done isn’t the best for the image of the sport, however the fact that something is being done within a relatively stubborn community is groundbreaking in itself.
Titles like “Death on the track” and “Santa Anita horse deaths cast shadow over racing industry”, all from media sites that didn’t bat an eyelid at the record breaking victories from horses like Enable, Justify or Arrogate.
The view shared by many is that without a National Governing Body, there is no coordinated response to the constant onslaught of negative reports by the media. One of the many benefits to the BHA, is the fact that whenever the media catches wind of a potential controversy, they can create an unbiased response, such as that to the Equine Flue outbreak, or to the deaths of six horses at Cheltenham. Without this unified board, American Racing is at risk of dying out due to unpopularity.
Like with other examples in the American sport, such as the relatively lax drug management legislation and penalisation, it appears that the USA is behind the rest of world when it comes to the management of the sport.
And I am definitely not the only person to think this. In the aftermath of the Santa Anita shutdown, US based trainer Graham Motion tweeted “If ever there was a time to galvanise support for a national governing body in out sport this would seem like another one of those watershed moments.” Another trainer, Tom Morley, also tweeted “This is another excellent example of why racing in the US needs a central body of regulation and accountability. I have fielded a lot of calls about the situation at Santa Anita of which I know very little apart from the tragedies and we have no industry voice.”
So why hasn’t it happened yet? Like almost everything in life it comes down to ego, pettiness and money. With a multimillion company like the Stronach Group, it is extremely unlikely that they will relinquish control over their tracks, without getting anything back from it.
When so much of the racing industry seems to suffer from their own success, what exactly can be done to change this commercialism mindset? A petition may be a way to begin traction around the idea.
Although it will in no way create a definitive solution to the problem, if enough voices are raised, something will have to be done, and even any small improvement is a step in the right direction.
So many people want to see this change be implemented, so whats holding us back?