Racing Reform: Humane Society to the Rescue?

HSUS should work to preserve what's best while reforming what's worst about horse racing in the USA
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HSUS should work to preserve what's best while reforming what's worst about horse racing in the USA
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It was only a conference call, but I thought I heard the clatter of hooves. Could it be a white knight I hear, galloping to the rescue?

Just as quickly as that vision formed in my mind, the sound of hoofbeats faded into the distance.

When it comes to contentious issues, the way forward for horseracing "integrity" is as snarled as gun control. Integrity is an all-encompassing word, but to those outside the horse industry, it hangs its helmet on medication reform. And only medication reform. 

For many of us, horseracing integrity is much more than that; we know that integrity discussions must include every aspect of the sport itself, including horsecare. And it is not just about the care of the horses at the track, but in the ethics of breeding and the responsibility of post-racing re-training or re-homing.

With that in mind, today's announcement by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) that it has elevated horse racing reform to a priority issue would be good news. Pressure and leadership from HSUS might (and that's a big "might") make a real difference in the quality of life of many invisible racehorses who never seem to get mentioned on the NBC Sports broadcasts.

As it turned out, HSUS President Wayne Pacelle shared the news that his organization's new Horse Racing Advisory Council will focus on medication reform politics in Washington. The new advisory council will help push H.R. 3084, the Thoroughbred Racing Integrity Act, through Congress, along with its soon-to-be-filed Senate version.

But Pacelle stopped short of letting HSUS loose to work more diligently at any of the other racing issues so often overshadowed by medication scandals or suspicions. Even though those issues are suggested in the Council mission statement, the conference call didn't focus on them. (However, the inclusion of Thoroughbred retirement advocate and former jockey Stacie Clark Rogers on the HSUS Horse Racing Advisory Council suggests that there could be more to the Council's mission than just details of drug data.)

According to supplemental documents, the Council's mission will have six tenets:

  1. To improve communication and foster cooperation between the animal welfare community and the horse racing industry regarding equine welfare.
  2.  To address what is currently the single greatest risk to equine welfare associated with horse racing--medication abuse--by supporting the passage of federal legislation in Congress for anti-doping reform.
  3.  To improve the welfare of horses after their racing and/or breeding careers have ended, including expanding horse retirement opportunities and ending the slaughter of retired racehorses for human consumption.
  4. To identify and address other issues concerning equine welfare associated with
    horse racing and improve the treatment of racehorses.
  5.  To engage with any and all stakeholders--including government, racing industry and animal welfare groups, racing fans and the general public--to achieve the above goals and to enhance equine welfare.
  6. To encourage transparency on all matters and to assist in raising funds when needed or appropriate. 

Joe De Francis will chair the council. Council members include the Jockey Club's Jim Gagliano, along with Stacie Clark-Rogers, regulator Allen Gutterman, marketer Joe Gorajec, breeder Staci Hancock and former jockey Chris McCarron. No veterinarians or trainers are represented on the council.

The parallels between legislating racing medication and gun control reform are uncanny. Are drugs (guns) the problem or is the problem the culture around the guns/medications and the attitudes and motivations of people who use them? Can you control medication and doping (or guns) without reshaping the culture that has spawned them?

Unlike gun control, the issue of doping and medication abuse in horse racing has no NRA. There is no public mouthpiece openly supporting and promoting over-medicating or illegal doping, other than the often-eloquent case put forward by veterinarians that the medications are designed to protect the horses from their own stress and fragile bones. Since no trainers will admit to illegal practices, reformers are tasked with trying to regulate what goes on in the shadows, and practiced by people who aren't likely to testify.

Pacelle described racing regulations as a "Balkanized" situation, referring to the cluster of small countries that emerged after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia on the Balkan Peninsula of Europe. The problem is that endorsing a national program requires a leap of faith that the funds would be available to administer a national program and that the penalties would be stiff enough to truly deter abuse. 

Take a look at the 46-year history of the Horse Protection Act, passed to once and for all end the soring of Walking horses, or the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act (1971), to decide how adept the US government is at enforcing its own regulations and protecting horses in the show ring and on the open range.

National legislation also opens the door to lobbying and compromise in order to get something passed in Congress. The question is usually: Isn't a bad law better than no law at all? That's tough to answer, because there are real horses at stake, as well as the livelihood of thousands of workers in an industry where decisions made by people who don't have their hands on horses are often scorned for that very reason.

Racing needs more than reform, and there are no sightings of white knights on the horizon. Perhaps what racing needs is one of those noisy, old-fashioned tent revivals with everyone swaying and singing the same hymn celebrating the sport they love. Can racing sing the praises of a government gospel? Can the government recognize what makes the tribe underneath the tent work as well as it does, with all its flaws? Would it protect the fragile fragments that represent what is good about racing?

Something must be done. Racing is not like professional team sports in major cities. There is not much equity between large but "boutique" meets at Saratoga or Del Mar, a small track in Wyoming, and a big racing-factory setting like Aqueduct. Shouldn't integrity reform cover Quarter horses and harness racing, as well?

HSUS may have upped its commitment to racing for the right reasons, but if it is going to be in the process, it needs to raise the level of conversation and act as the conscience of the cause. Lawmakers who need to be swayed should not be shuttled to Saratoga in August to see how racing works. They need to drive in pickup trucks without satnavs to second and third tier tracks in West Virginia or Pennsylvania.

HSUS needs to create a meme for racing that uses a cheap claimer as its icon, not a champion stakes horse or famous stallion. This is not American Pharoah's or Zenyatta's or even Beholder's fight. The organization should make the Congressional decision makers roll up their sleeves and hold a vet's stethoscope to listen to a racehorse's heart after it has just lost a low-purse maiden claiming race that might mean the end of its career--and life. 

What happens to horses like that one are what racing integrity is really all about, and the integrity of the decisions made on its behalf by breeders, trainers and owners can't be regulated. 

If this is worth doing, it's worth doing right. And if anyone is worth doing it for, it's the horses that none of us ever placed a bet on, heard about or saw on television. HSUS can show Congress what racing is--and should be--all about by recording the sound of that anonymous claimer's heartbeat, and playing it back until it echoes under the Capitol dome, and can't be defeated. 

(Top photo by Jenna Filipkowski)

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Fran Jurga is a freelance writer in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she writes about horses and marine science. The AIM Equine Network has hosted her multiple award-winning articles on The Jurga Report since 2006. Follow Fran on Twitter or Facebook, and come back here to read more about the issues and problems that face our horses.