Four dead horses in six days at Churchill Downs shows racing’s reality problem

It is the racing industry that should be in mourning, because its death seems imminent.

Opinion | Yahoo! News | by Kathy Guillermo | 3rd May 2023

The first Saturday in May has been a day of mourning since 2008 when Eight Belles broke both front ankles after crossing the finish line in the Kentucky Derby. She was euthanized on the track.

America had fallen out of love with horse racing years before but the sight of that lovely gray filly lying in the dirt just two years after the colt Barbaro shattered a leg at the Preakness Stakes was a blow upon a bruise. It was catastrophic injury on network television, witnessed by millions.

Barbaro after he suffered the fatal breaks that eventually claimed his life. Source: Bryant Photos.
Barbaro after he suffered the fatal breaks that eventually killed him. Source: Bryant Photos.

This year, even before the starting bell has rung, the body count has begun. As of this writing, there have been four deaths at the track in just six days. Derby contender Wild On Ice was euthanized after fracturing a leg in training last week. Visitors to Churchill Downs brought flowers as a tribute to the gelding—and placed them on the statue of Barbaro.

On April 29, four-year-old filly Parents Pride collapsed after a race and didn’t get up. Just three days later, Take Charge Briana and Chasing Artie died. In the preceding weeks at Keeneland, three horses died, the most since 2019.

But it’s also the racing industry that should be in mourning because its death seems imminent.

Predicted oblivion

The staggering decline of horse racing in the U.S. is pointing it toward oblivion. The betting handle (total amount bet) in the U.S. has been stagnant for three decades, and when adjusted for inflation has fallen precipitously.

In 2022, the number of Thoroughbred foals born was half what it was in 2005, the year Eight Belles was born. Dozens of tracks have shuttered and for many of the ones that remain open, attendance is so sparse they resemble COVID safe zones, with 20 people at a track that used to bring out 20,000 bettors a night.

The crowd was shocked to see Eight Belles stumble and fall after she crossed the finish line second in the 134th Kentucky Derby. They also were shocked to see how quickly the filly was euthanized after fracturing both front legs.

Many more would have closed long ago but for the injection of cash generated by the placement of slot machines or video lottery terminals in or near the tracks. In New York, for example, the 11 Thoroughbred and Standardbred tracks enjoy $230 million in video lottery terminal subsidies—and return just $10 million to the state in pari-mutuel wagering taxes. By contrast, betting on other sports brought New Yorkers $909 million in just its first year.

Many of those who will be gathering to drink mint juleps on May 6 couldn’t tell a furlong from a trifecta. When Triple Crown season is over, they won’t give another thought to horse racing until the following May. The Derby is a great excuse for a party but it’s not an accurate measure of racing’s popularity. How many people have heard of Flightline, the 2022 Horse of the Year?

Flavien Prat rides the 2022 Horse of the YearFlightline — to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. The horse was retired to stud after just six races. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

There may be several reasons for the decline, but chief among them is an American public that has grown intolerant of animal suffering in sport. It’s just not acceptable for a horse to die during what is supposed to be entertainment.

It’s noticeable to even casual fans that winning horses are retired to stud at the age of three or four — before they’re even physically mature — because the risk of life-ending injury is so great. Get them to the breeding shed fast before a broken leg eliminates years of stud fees. Flightline was retired to stud after just six races.

Horse racing is now all about racing to breed rather than breeding to race.

Many in the industry just don’t get it. Over and over they say, We need to improve our public image. Or, if PETA would go away everything would be fine.

Racing’s reality problem

PETA’s not going away. More importantly, as I told the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission at a public hearing more than a decade ago, racing doesn’t have an image problem — it has a reality problem. Three horses die on U.S. tracks every day. Racing has become synonymous with drugs, death and misery. Not because PETA’s investigations have revealed doping, slaughter and horses raced with fractures, but because it’s accurate.

Some in the industry have acknowledged this and tried to make change. The Jockey Club released a progressive list of recommendations. California passed groundbreaking new regulations to protect horses. Long-awaited legislation known as HISA brought a federal oversight body for the first time ever. Yet others in racing have fought every action that could prevent death, including a switch to synthetic tracks, which the industry’s own statistics have shown to be the safest surface by far.

While California has reduced both the number of races and the deaths, in some other states there’s not even a requirement to have a veterinarian present. PETA found a West Virginia track was dumping the bodies of horses killed on the track in a local landfill.

Unless the entire industry accepts the reality and fixes it, the Derby celebration will become the party your grandparents had.

Kathy Guillermo is a senior vice president with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals;

We just saw that Flightline has been sold for the “implied sum” of $186M. Source.

Updated: 05/04/23 at 4:05 pm.

Tuesday’s Horse

Official Blog of The Fund for Horses

8 thoughts on “Four dead horses in six days at Churchill Downs shows racing’s reality problem”

  1. Kathy Guillermo said it best – horse racing has seen its day and it HOPEFULLY will soon be a thing of the past, that “will become the party your grandparents had.” Of course, it really never was a party for anyone but the humans…never the horses!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Another part of the problem – and it IS ONLY about MONEY – is the Internal Revenue Code. One thing people fail to realize – that is, those outside of CPAs who have horse breeders, trainers, instructors, syndicates, etc. as clients – first of all, the IRS gives racing and ONLY racing largely a pass on predatory IRS behavior regarding audits, collections, surveillance, allowances for deductions, and so forth. The IRS absolutely loathes, detests and despises almost ALL horse people. BUT it does not have that attitude toward racing, why? Because “racing is presumed to be in pursuit of profit” so essentially it falls within all those “safe harbor” provisions in the Internal Revenue Code. So it essentially is one of the few remaining tax “shelters” for the rich who don’t give a rat’s patoot beyond what they are saving on taxes on earned, investment income, or capital gains income. MUCH LESS to these people actually CARE about the horses sent to early death FOR EVEN MORE TAX WRITE-OFFS and those write-offs, while at the same time scamming the equine mortality and loss-of-use insurers, mean ever more blood money winding its way into these evil people’s bank accounts. Beyond disgusting! What’s maybe even worse? Generally speaking any “pursuit of profit” business is given only a minimal amount of time before they aren’t allowed to take those “losses”. That EFFECTIVELY means that horses TOO YOUNG PHYSICALLY TO RACE ARE BEING FORCED TO RUN TO THEIR INSURED AND TAX-SHELTERED DEATHS JUST SO THE OWNERS AND INVESTORS CAN MAKE BANK BEFORE THEIR “SAFE HARBOR” PROVISIONS DISAPPEAR INTO THE SUNSET – JUST LIKE THOSE COFFIN TRUCKS DISAPPEAR WITH THEIR STRICKEN LOADS.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Horse racing is a disgusting and deplorable “sport.” If the general public had any awareness as to what these horses endure in their very short careers and what happens to them after racing (assuming they don’t die on the track), the public would be outraged.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. And if you tell those uninformed people what happens? They call you a liar. Until this sort of thing makes it to the 6 o’clock network news EVERY SINGLE DAY the public in general will continue to deflect and deny what is really happening with these “sports.”

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Thank you for your comment Bridgett. It is indeed deplorable. And more. These death tolls (we are told) do not include the horses who are killed while they are “in training”, whose deaths are very rarely if ever reported.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Kathy, thanks to PETA for the work you have done on behalf of thousands of voiceless racehorses.
    You have addressed most of the issues herein, but there’s one major component missing that most of the animal rights and advocacy groups consistently miss.
    Our politicians, like the NRA, are in the back pockets of horse racing.
    We can educate all we want about the horror show unraveling on racetracks throughout America, but as long as politicians continue to endorse it plus monetarily feed it with endless sums of casino profits and/or taxpayers money it will not end.
    I’ve been around this business my entire life, as both an insider and outsider, and what’s abundantly clear to me is that horse racing knows they can kill as many racehorses as they want and still get their money.
    They don’t even care about what the public thinks, although they try to convince us that they care, because they are having secret meetings with our politicians in their office to secure millions to keep this horror show going.
    There are so many examples of this over the years, but the most recent example is Kathy Hochul, Governor of New York, who received $180,000 from the NYRA and members of her staff Sen. Joseph Addabbo (who oversees horse racing committee for approval of these funds) got a cool $44,000. (Source: NY Focus investigation).
    How’s that for democracy?
    Now, that’s what we know of, but you can bet they got more money or kickbacks from horse racing through back channels.
    While NYorkers are suffering more now than ever, while the homeless situation is bad, while schoolchildren are deprived of public education, due to lack of funds, Gov. Hochul gives horse racing $455 million to build a fancy clubhouse that we know will not do anything to improve their metrics on a consistent year-round basis especially for the racehorses.
    While NYorkers are getting massive property tax increases and other taxes Gov. Hochul made sure that buying and selling racehorses will not be taxed.
    Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in NY every year to buy and sell racehorses, including the claiming ranks, and they don’t pay any taxes on that.
    There are so many more examples, but it all amounts to a gravy train for horse racing.
    Over 20 years ago, when I was an owner and trainer in Ontario the racino model was the first of its kind in North America.
    The only reason why it was approved, over the objections of the majority of the residents and politicians, was because it was supposed to be temporary (2 years) and then the profits would be redirected into education and healthcare.
    Another huge promise was to the small horse families, like mine, that years of suffering under low purse money would finally be rewarded now that the purse money was about to go through the roof as it did.
    All those years of loyalty supporting Woodbine would finally come to fruition was what we were all told, but never happened.
    I know now, more than ever, that these casino profits, under the racino model, benefited the politicians, attorneys, racing commissioners and the HBPA who all work in tandem with each other.
    Every single small horse family got plowed over by all of them and ended up financially broken, but we know who is the most broken out of this entire scenario and that’s the racehorses.
    Their broken bodies and confined broken souls are the direct result of politicians who care nothing about that because, if they did, they would immediately cancel the racino model.
    Moreover, Gov. Hochul knows nothing about horse racing or cares nothing about racehorses to put through such a sweet deal for predominantly wealthy people while competely ignoring the majority of her constituents.
    This has been recently played out in Maryland where politicians, yet again, have endorsed horse racing and they’ve agreed to hand over millions to horse racing and guess whose on the committee?
    All pro-horse racing individuals and entities including the Maryland HBPA.
    They’ve given Frank Stronach, under now defunct Magna Entertainment, hundreds of millions of dollars to restore horse racing to its “former glory,” but never happened.
    Nor did the upgrades promised, nor did the improvement to surrounding poverty stricken neighborhoods happen very little was fulfilled in exchange for millions in taxpayers money.
    Yet, these delusional politicians still have recently agreed to hand over millions.
    I truly believe that all pro-animal groups and entities should entirely focus on the politicial process and politicians to end the brutality of this killing business.
    I think one of the best ways to do this would be to publish the names of politicians whom you’ve confirmed is commited to ending the money and the horse racing’s demise will quickly follow.
    PETA has the influence to accomplish such a task because that’s what I really think needs to be done to finally end this.
    (excerpts from my book that will be published shortly, but will share here for the racehorses. All rights reserved)

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Stronach is one of an unholy coterie of “private equity” investors aka vulture capitalists. Private equity corporations – the mask behind which these horrid people hide – are taking over not only the food and beverage and food services industries but also the human HEALTH CARE industries including they now actually run most hospital ERs. That’s right. Your local hospital ER is not actually part of your local hospital it is an independent FOR PROFIT ONLY private equity firm. Much of the deregulation of private equity investors and corporations happened from the top down in the previous administration with several infamous private equity players being appointed to key federal government agency positions.

      Liked by 2 people

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