Guest Post by CYNTHIA D’ERRICO
Author of “Ground Manners. A Novel.”
- “From what I see here, the regulations on those bloody machines are curbing revenues—and turning Blue Bonnets into a huge tavern . . . with state-controlled gambling . . . It could bring the industry to its knees. . . Where’s the cash going?…Follow the cash, senator, follow the cash. . . . ” [p. 157, Ground Manners. A Novel]
In early 2009, harness racing in the province of Quebec was virtually dismantled due to the politics of greed and nepotism. It was a long and complicated road from 2006 when Quebec decided to favour one of its hometown boys, a senator, by making him Quebec’s most important racetrack operator, Attractions Hippiques (AH). That very first year, the Montreal Hippodrome (formerly, Blue Bonnets) and the three other main racetracks in the province began losing money hand over fist, and AH entered creditor protection in its second year.
Throughout the economic crisis in 2008 and early 2009, Quebec finally decided that it could no longer justify artificially buttressing a dying sport just because the racetrack owner happened to be a politician. The harness racing industry had already been left in the cold prior to this given that AH had reduced their winnings from $24 million to only $12 million—a clear breach of promise to stakeholders who had invested in breeding accordingly—and maintained that they could not share with horsemen any of the profits from the onsite VLT gaming and remote betting, another breach of contract. I’m just giving you the broad outline here because the web of corruption, if I were to elaborate, would be a storyline fit only for that obscene (and death-dealing) show, Luck (which, by the way, is still being re-run several times a day on HBO).
In any case, the upshot of what happened in Quebec is that hundreds of Standardbreds went to slaughter—not before owners, trainers and breeders had had their say, and held rallies bitterly condemning Quebec’s indifference to saving an industry which, province-wide, represented $250 million, according to the President of The Quebec Standardbred Owners & Breeders Association, Alain Valliéres.
Apparently, the horses had no say at all, and horses younger than two years old—perfectly healthy, or ready to be re-trained, re-purposed—were slaughter-bound even as their owners were packing off to Ontario and the US, to try to continue plying their trade.
As we speak, the same scenario is playing out in the province of Ontario. And, as happened just at the desperate tail-end of the Quebec shadow-puppet show, no municipalities are interested in having a gambling venue polluting their backyards. As the Mayor of Boisbriand, Sylvie Saint-Jean, stated unequivocally “no $200 million dollar Equine Complex would be putting a foot on her territory . . . Her city council unanimously voted against . . . stating the costs and social impacts which transcend financial benefits.” [La Terre de chez nous, Jan 24, 2008, p. 5]
On February 14th, thestar.com reported that the McGuinty government of Ontario was frowning upon “the $345 million that horse racing receives annually from slot revenue.” And what really insulted Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association was that the government referred to the industry’s share of gaming revenue as “a subsidy.” But unlike those in the (former) Quebec harness racing industry, these racing stakeholders are more savvy: they’re playing the “slaughter card”. In a recent article, they declare their puzzlement: “One has to wonder where the animal rights’ activists are. The thought of Sea Biscuit being on a one-way trip to a Kitchener abattoir is enough to stir the heart of even the most hardened cynic.” Really? You’re kidding, right? No, they’re not. In a March 5th editorial by John Stapleton in the same online journal, he writes:
- “The true innocents in this whole affair are the horses themselves. If the breeders, owners and trainers are no longer able to pay the bills at some point down the road, there will be insufficient numbers of farmers and other interests to absorb the thousands of horses who would lack racing venues and whose purse earnings would no longer be viable.”
The disingenuousness of Standardbred owners and breeders as this new government initiative threatens their livelihoods (and, as they altruistically mention, those of the communities they’ve served up to now) reveals just how little respect they have for the Canadian public. Racehorses have always been sent to slaughter—and not because of a downsizing in the racing industry—but precisely because everyone is looking for another Seabiscuit. Responsible breeders look to sell and/or retrain horses that are not lucrative on the track, but many do not (in fact, they must be totally free of that relatively new disorder called, hoarding, which I suppose speaks in their, um, favour somehow). Hold the tomatoes . . . .
I can only speak for myself and from my own experience. Just prior to starting to write my book, Ground Manners. A Novel, I was still volunteering with Refuge RR of Alexandria, Ontario (formerly of Ormstown, QC), where the magnitude of racetrack abuse was bearing down on me like a freight train. I’d like to give an exact figure but I’ll ballpark it based on what the owner told me and what I witnessed myself in the three years I volunteered: nearly two-thirds of the equines rescued by RR over the years were Standardbreds. The story that follows is one that especially touched my heart.
Her name was Belle. There was just something about her…about her face. She was a four-year-old SB who had won tens of thousands of dollars for her owners, and like so many in harness racing, had endured post-race beatings for breaking gait. The beatings stopped when she broke her leg (surprise), but the owners, still looking to get blood from a stone, decided to breed her. Belle’s story appears in an article I wrote for RR’s Fall 2007 newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
- “Owners love winning horses–to death. Pushed beyond her limits, Belle–like her sister, Lily–also ended up breaking her leg. They got vet help for her leg, but as she awoke from anaesthetic, Belle damaged a main artery [making] the veins on her face protrude….Pregnant at three years old, and injured during a less-than-perfect recovery, Belle was left alone in a field with other broodmares. When she foaled in the cold, the help that was desperately needed never came. She watched her foal suffer and die. When finally discovered, the unflappable owner decided to send her to slaughter. The trainer, thankfully, intervened and contacted the Refuge.” [page 5, RR newsletter, Fall, 2007]
I know that this is far from the worst racehorse story out there. There are much worse. But Belle’s exquisitely gentle, permanently scarred face became for me the living symbol of all the deadly corruption in horse racing: a sport mangled beyond recognition by greed and a callous indifference. I couldn’t look at her without wanting to pray, fall to my knees and chant, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I am so sorry.’
But I want to be fair. There are many ways to love horses . . . maybe mine glorifies the horse too slavishly, maybe I should seek to understand someone who makes his living off the back of a horse. That’s what I tried to do when I created the character of John Rash in Ground Manners. A Novel. The editor of Tuesday’s Horse blog considers Rash’s opinion the consummate description of how such people see horses and how they think:
- “What he liked about horse racing was the minimal investment and the high returns. He didn’t mind horses at all; they were easy on the eyes and exciting to watch. The horse industry in general was a zero-waste proposition: this was one animal you could take from birth, exploit all its qualities – speed, strength, tractability – through breeding, racing, eventing, calèche or companion service, and then profit from its flesh when it had outlived its usefulness. You had to respect the horse. He was more than a beast of burden. He was a full service animal from birth to barbecue – no part of him wasted, no quality left unmined.” [page 138, Ground Manners. A Novel]
This post is for Vivian and Jane. In admiration. — Cynthia D’Errico