But is it safe? Palio-style horse racing proposed for the beach at Atlantic City; bill awaits signing by Governor Chris Christie

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The city that brought us the fading memories of diving horses, Monopoly board place names, and the Miss America pageant is at it again. When it comes to creative tourist attractions, Atlantic City, New Jersey wrote the book.

The inspiration for racing on the beach at Atlantic City is the ancient tradition of horse races around the city square in Sienna, Italy. (Wikimedia image)

It seems like just yesterday that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was mourning the damage to the Jersey Shore following last fall’s tragic Hurricane Sandy.

Now the popular governor will have to decide whether or not he will approve a unique horse racing bill passed by his state legislature. The bill allows for a special weekend of horse racing on the wide beach at Atlantic City on the Jersey Shore over Columbus Day.

But is it a good idea?


According to the Press of Atlantic City, the latest plan calls for a unique horse race that emulates the historic Palio races in Sienna, Italy.

In Italy, the ancient race has horses representing the neighborhoods of the medieval city; Atlantic City’s original plan called for 50 horses, representing each of 50 states, although that plan seems to be under revision.

The bill (A4149 and S2899) passed both houses of the New Jersey legislature with unanimous approval.

Most of the publicity about the proposal concentrates on the novelty of the idea, and the possibility of attracting throngs of gamblers and curiosity seekers to the rebuilt Boardwalk. So far, no equine welfare organizations have taken a stand publicly against the races, but don’t count on them to remain silent when and if Christie signs the bill.

Imitating Sienna’s treatment of horses wouldn’t be popular in the United States. A horse was trampled in Sienna in 2004 and officials did not stop the race; 49 horses died in the races between 1970 and 2011. Recent horse safety measures have included the building of a training track for the horses to become accustomed to the surface.

The James Bond film Quantum of Solace was filmed during the Palio in 2008, amid protests by animal organizations in Italy and Great Britain.

The Italian Palio races have been condemned by equine welfare organizations for decades in spite of increases in regulations to improve horse safety. The Palio is nowhere near a beach; the city covers the pavement with an artificial surface and dirt. Sharp corners traditionally padded with mattresses now sport PVC plastic piping, thanks to a recent improvement.


The Palio races are traditionally run bareback, with the jockeys dressed in colorful outfits symbolic of city neighborhoods. The Italians are also known to take the racehorses into churches to be blessed before the race.


Historically, it’s interesting to note that horses were introduced to the Palio in Sienna in 1590 when the archduke banned bullfighting. Donkeys raced around the plaza, and later thick-built Tuscany-bred horses. Now the horses look like Thoroughbreds.

Horse racing is nothing new to Atlantic City: there was a racetrack in town before there was a casino. Stockholders in the early days of the Atlantic City Race Course included actor Bob Hope and singer Frank Sinatra. Actress Grace Kelly’s father was the first president. But race dates for 2013 at the track have been limited to a six-day turf festival this spring.

The track at Atlantic City is many miles from the beach, as the seagull flies, and it doesn’t have a sand track that would prepare horses’ legs for running on the beach.

Efforts to bring back diving horses as a tourist attraction in Atlantic City met with vocal opposition from equine welfare advocates, who have so far been silent on the beach racing proposal.


Thoroughbred racing on the beach is popular in Caribbean countries and is even sanctioned at Laytown in Ireland. Harness racing on the firm sands of the North Sea beaches are popular at low tide in northern Germany at Duhnen, Croxhaven.

In Ireland, horses are traditionally conditioned on the beach for racing; in England, the great Grand National hero Red Rum was famous for training for that race on the beach, where his tender feet were cushioned by the sand and saltwater.

But running on the beach is very different from running on a prepared track. The city officials and state lawmakers have not published details on how the horses will train for these races. Most beaches are closed to horses; beaches that allow horses generally do so in the winter months to reduce the dangers of horses mixing with tourists and dogwalkers on foot.

Basic safety for racehorses depends on the horse being conditioned for the surface it will race over at its highest speed. Sand surfaces are known to require more energy and exertion.

Rachael Shuster, DVM of Shuster Equine, LLC in Marlton, New Jersey works on race and sport horses in her practice; she provides acupuncture, chiropractic and podiatry consulting services and, when interviewed this week, said she was surprised she hadn’t heard about the Atlantic City plan. She’s also an avid beachgoer.

“The safety of the horse should be foremost,” Shuster said, “And all angles should be checked. This would probably require a different type of training and perhaps shoeing, as well. When horses get tired, they can get sloppy, and don’t place their feet properly, which may lead to tendon and ligament injuries.”


Let’s hope the racing officials name the race for Sonora Webster Carver, inspiration for this citizen video on YouTube.

Studies at the Animal Health Trust in England found that sport horses trained on sand were at the highest risk of injury, but that the more a horse trained on sand, the safer it became for that horse.

The language of the New Jersey bill allowing racing on the beach at Atlantic City concentrates on the conduct of pari-mutuel betting on it. No details of how the betting system would work have been given, nor how the safety of horses, riders and the public will be insured.

Perhaps Atlantic City plans to open the beach so horses can train on the sand during the weeks before the race, but that is hard to imagine. Will they bring a starting gate to the beach or will horses have to be trained to start using some other system? Sienna’s race is famous for its sharp turns; how would horses navigate turns in the beach sand?

It sounds like the New Jersey planners need to bring in consultants from both Sienna and Ireland.

Done safely, a beach race at Atlantic City could be exciting, fun and great promotion for both the resort and horse racing. Without regard for horse safety, it could be a nightmare for both, and quickly go the way of the diving horse.




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