Horse Racing Wrongs: Open Letter to Bob Costas; Eight Belles

Peta's Eight Belles Memorial & Horse Racing Headstones at the Kentucky Derby. Source: Flickr.



The following letter was sent to Bob Costas, host of NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage. To date, no reply. The sentiments expressed, of course, are applicable to all at that network, but most especially to Jon Miller, president of sports programming. Since my letter was mailed, an article in Sports Business Journal quotes Miller as saying: “Horse racing is an underappreciated and undervalued property that we were committed to growing and developing, and restoring to its status as a major sport in this country.” At once, repugnant (referring to the wholesale killing of horses for $2 bets as “sport”) and delusional (the U.S. racing industry is not coming back). Anyway, please read on.

The Letter

Dear Mr. Costas:

My name is Patrick Battuello and I am the founder and president of Horseracing Wrongs, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to ending horseracing in America. First, let me say that as a life-long sports fan I have always respected your work. You are knowledgeable, eloquent, and thoughtful – truly one of the finest broadcasters of this or any generation. As a result, your words and actions hold great sway. Most recently, your stance against the NFL’s handling of the brain-injury issue and, more broadly, your detachment from football itself is both weighty and admirable. But your support and enthusiasm for horseracing is, I feel, profoundly disturbing, all the more so because of those aforementioned qualities.

I would like to share some information you may or may not already know. Since 2014, when I began filing FOIA requests with state racing commissions, I have been publishing first-of-their-kinds “Killed” lists – confirmed deaths on U.S. tracks. These annual lists have been roughly 1,000-strong, but after considering various factors (which I enumerate on the website), I have come to conclude that upward of 2,000 American racehorses are killed racing or training every year. Over 2,000. And this is not just a “cheap track” problem: Last summer, 21 horses died during hallowed Saratoga’s decidedly brief meet. The two summers prior, it was Del Mar. Truth is, there are no answers – death at the track is, always has been, and always will be an inherent part of this industry (please see “The Inevitability of Dead Racehorses”).

In addition, countless others, perhaps just as many as those killed on-track, succumb to what the industry conveniently dismisses as “non-racing” causes – things like colic, laminitis, “barn accident,” “found dead in stall.” In truth, however, these animals are no less victims of the business than the ones who snap their legs on raceday. Furthermore, the prevailing wisdom (fully explained on the site) is that most – likely an overwhelming majority of – retired racehorses are brutally and violently slaughtered once Racing deems them expended. In short, I don’t think it hyperbole to say that the U.S. horseracing industry is engaged in wholesale carnage. Yes, carnage.

As an animal advocate, I seek to draw parallels between “us” and “them” – to help people forge connections they may not have previously thought existed. That said, I can certainly appreciate that although we share much with the rest of sentient creation – the most relevant being the capacity for suffering – an exact equality is neither tenable nor necessarily desirable. In other words, I am not saying that a CTE-afflicted former football player and a “broke-down” racehorse are the same things. But the question is not whether dead horses and dead people matter equally; rather, do dead horses matter at all? If they do, what level of destruction must be met before we as a society say, enough? For me, of course, one dead horse for $2 bets is one too many. But what, respectfully, is that number for you?

Mr. Costas, I implore you to dig deeper, to look beyond the juleps, hats, and horns, for that is racing on but a handful of days, at a tiny fraction of tracks. The rest of it, Racing’s very core, is ugly and mean. It’s spirit-crushing isolation and confinement for over 23 hours a day (which, by the way, makes a mockery of the industry claim that horses are born to run, love to run); it’s needles and syringes and injury-numbing chemicals; it’s absolute control and utter subjugation – lip tattoos, nose chains, metal bits, and leather whips; it’s anxiety and stress (in the most detailed FOIA documentation I have received to date, the Pennsylvania ’16 report indicated the presence of ulcers – most extensive to severe – in virtually every one of the dead horses); it’s buying and selling and trading and dumping; it’s shattered limbs, imploded hearts, head trauma, and pulmonary hemorrhage; it’s kill-buyers and transport trucks, shackles and butchers’ knives. It’s exploitation and cruelty. It’s suffering and death.

Football may indeed be embarking on a slow, steady decline, and it’s probably just as well. For it is a violent, unforgiving game, with many of the participants’ lives forever altered. But in the final analysis, they, as fully-autonomous human beings, have a choice. Horses do not. In fact, and pardon the inflammatory language, the racehorse is but a simple slave – a thing to be used, a resource to be mined. When future generations cast a critical eye, what is to be our collective defense? That we countenanced the above for entertainment? For gambling? Mr. Costas, your position on football has changed – evolved. We ask only that the same thoughtfulness and caring that went into that be applied to “The Sport of Kings.” Please, for the horses.

Patrick Battuello
Founder/President, Horseracing Wrongs


Eight Belles falls to her chest as she fractures both front legs after crossing the finish line in the 2008 running of the Kentucky Derby.
Eight Belles falls to her chest as she fractures both front legs after crossing the finish line in the 2008 running of the Kentucky Derby, May 3, 2008. (click to enlarge)

10 years ago today Eight Belles died at Churchill Downs. ESPN wrote this:

Eight Belles crossed the wire 4 3/4 lengths behind favorite Big Brown. Then, with the second-largest crowd in Derby history still whooping it up, Eight Belles collapsed with two broken front ankles.

The magnitude of what happened was slow to reach the fans at Churchill Downs. Not only was a horse down, but it was the filly. And horse racing — with the memory of Barbaro still fresh and the death of a horse coming only a day earlier on Kentucky Oaks Day — had to confront grief one more time.

“There was no way to save her. She couldn’t stand,” trainer Larry Jones said. “She ran an incredible race. She ran the race of her life.”

And this . . . .

“Everyone breathed a big sigh of relief that everyone came around the track cleanly and then all of a sudden it happened,” said Dr. Larry Bramlage, on-call veterinarian.

That last statement sums it up doesn’t it? They “breathed a big sigh of relief that everyone came around the track cleanly . . . ”

Horse racing expects injury. Horse racing expects catastrophic injury. Horse racing expects death.

That’s horse racing. You bet. They die.

Please share far and wide. For the horses.

Quote Source:

The Jockey Club’s Death Database is a Joke

Eight Belles falls to her chest as she fractures both front legs after crossing the finish line in the 2008 running of the Kentucky Derby.

Cross-posted with Permission from Horse Racing Wrongs

Last week, The Jockey Club gleefully boasted of progress on the “breakdown” front: “An analysis of data from the Equine Injury Database…has shown a 14 percent decrease in the frequency of fatal injury…from 1.89 per 1,000 starts in 2014 to 1.62 per 1,000 starts in 2015…the lowest since the EID started publishing…in 2009.”

Well – time to deconstruct the oft-cited, much ballyhooed “Equine Injury Database” . . .

To start, the wording is (intentionally, I have to believe) misleading: Presented as deaths per 1,000 starts, it reads, at least to the untrained eye, deaths per 1,000 horses. But the typical racehorse logs many starts (up to 25) each year, making the death rate per 1,000 horses much higher – certainly not one they’d want to publicize.

The database is completely voluntary: While many tracks participate, some do not. Besides that, no third party – not the JC, not a government agency, no one – verifies the submitted data. At the risk of stating the obvious, dead horses are bad for business. So, not only is there no compelling reason for tracks (trainers, owners, etc.) to give a complete reckoning, there is a vested interest to not. Self-reporting – an honor system – the casualties that they are directly responsible for? Please.

The database is anonymous: No names, no dates, (mostly) no locations. Not only does this make it impossible for someone like me to cross-confirm, it keeps the names and faces of the dead safely secreted away. Messy carcasses converted to sterile ratios.

The database has acknowledged restrictions: Only those who perish “as a direct result of injuries sustained participating in a race” are counted. In other words, the 3-year-old (an adolescent, by the way) who keels and dies of what is commonly dismissed as a “cardiac event” is excluded, not to mention all training deaths, which are at least as common as those occurring in-race. And, the death must come “within 72 hours of [the] race,” leaving the many who are euthanized back at the farm, post unsuccessful surgery, or after being acquired by a rescue unaccounted for. More hidden carnage.

In the end, The Jockey Club is American Thoroughbred racing, impossible to separate from the other interested parties. How can anything it says regarding the more unseemly aspects (dead horses) of its own industry be taken seriously?

Second-place finisher Eight Belles in the middle of the pack during the Kentucky Derby in 2008. (Reuters)
Second-place finisher Eight Belles in the middle of the pack during the Kentucky Derby in 2008. (Reuters)

Truth is, the “Equine Injury Database” is but a marketing tool, created in the wake of Eight Belles and all the bad press that ensued, existing solely to quell an increasingly unsettled public with an empty promise of “we’re on this, we care.” They’re not and they don’t.

The result of Eight Belles run in the 2008 Kentucky and the result of thousands of other racehorses.
The result of Eight Belles run in the 2008 Kentucky and the result of thousands of others. Vivian Farrell.

20+ Yr Insider commented: “When a horse breaks down or is pulled up due to injury in a race, they will at all means transport the horse off the track, and put it down in the barn area. By doing this they don’t have to report the death of said horse as a racing death. This makes the statistics look better, while covering up the truth.”

• See The Inevitably of Dead Racehorses »

Eight Belles falls to her chest as she fractures both front legs after crossing the finish line in the 2008 running of the Kentucky Derby.

New York Times, 2012 — That was then. This is now. Gambling keeps this industry alive. You Bet. They Die.

Tracks to release racehorse fatality data

Eight Belles dies in the dirt at Churchill Downs after finishing 2nd in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
Eight Belles dies in the dirt at Churchill Downs after finishing 2nd in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
Eight Belles breaks down and dies in the dirt at Churchill Downs after finishing 2nd in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

Here we go again. Charts, tables, reports and databases — usually put together in such a way that not even industry people cannot interpret them — contributed to on a voluntary basis which will tell us exactly, what? What the trends are? That’s about as much as we can hope for, but it is far from definitive and most likely never will be.

And that is exactly how the horse racing industry appears to like it and wants to keep it, as the sport crumbles around deaf ears. However, accurate, reliable data would be possible to a higher degree if horse racing had a central governing body like any other professional sport, say with federally backed power to enforce its rules and mandate that factual information is collected from everyone. Guess what? It seems they do not want that either.

What am I raving about? Read on.

Gregory A. Hall writing for the Louisville Courier-Journal reports:

The Jockey Club announced Monday that more than a dozen racetracks — including two in Kentucky — that participate in a horse industry racing fatality database have agreed to release the statistics for their properties.

But the four tracks owned by Louisville-based Churchill Downs Inc. are not among them.

The Kentucky tracks that agreed to release their data in The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database are Keeneland Race Course in Lexington and Turfway Park in Florence.

A Jockey Club spokesman said Churchill was invited to release the data and declined.

There’s more. Keep reading here >>

Horse racing: The deadly side of beauty

Eight Belles and Big Brown
Kent Desormeaux rides Big Brown past Gabriel Saez riding Eight Belles (5) to win the 134th Kentucky Derby Saturday, May 3, 2008, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

It is the first Saturday in May and all eyes will be on horse racing as people gather around the US and the world to watch the Kentucky Derby. It is beautiful, moving, stirring and exhilarating. The sport of horse racing is also deadly.

This time of year not only sends racing journalists and enthusiasts into a frenzy trying to predict the winner, but also horse advocates and lovers into an equal frenzy trying to expose the closely guarded “dirty secrets” of horse racing that destroys these magnificent animals.

There have been many laudable articles, but we have picked two to excerpt.

The first is “Lush Life for Kentucky Derby Horses? Don’t Bet on It”, by Marlene Fanta Shyer, Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 2011

Thoroughbreds sustain not only their trainers, owners, veterinarians, jockeys, and blacksmiths, but everyone from the hotel bellhop to the hot-dog vendor. Yet the price the horses pay is steep.

While Thoroughbreds’ life span is about 20 to 30 years, their productive span is five or six. Loud and strong on the track, they are mute and weak when it comes to pleading their own cause: funds to care for their post-race lives.

In their prime, 90 percent of them are given Phenylbutazone, “bute,” which helps them race despite injuries. Possible side effects include kidney damage, internal hemorrhage, and oral lesions. Racetrack fatalities, fractures, heart attacks, and breakdowns are ever-present hazards. The tragic, postinjury euthanization of Derby racers Barbaro and Eight Belles in recent years briefly called attention to the dark side of this industry. Has everyone forgotten?

The greatest harm, though, comes when the horses’ racing days are over. Having served well while they are able, they have no Social Security or other financial protection when they can no longer earn their keep. They may be sold for low-level “claimer” races, shipped from track to track until injuries bar them from running. After their racing days are behind them, if they are too old to breed, show-jump, or do simple trail riding, they are sent to “kill auctions.” Too often, it comes down to a horrific end in an abattoir.

While Kentucky should not carry all the blame for equine abuses, the “Horse Capital of the World” should lead the way in correcting the injustices of its major industry. The state Racing Commission is taking baby steps in the right direction, but so much more should be done:

The Jockey Club, which registers Thoroughbred births, should make mandatory – not voluntary as is the practice – a contribution to each foal’s retirement fund.

Racetracks should bar owners or trainers who allow a horse to be shipped to slaughter from its tracks.

Congress should finally pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

We should require the accurate reporting of injuries during training as well as during races.

Research on safer track surfaces is currently being done, but as with drugging, whipping, and other welfare standards, unanimous regulations don’t exist. Why not?

It’s time for the “Horse Capital of the World” to become the winner it could be. It should provide for its defenseless champions and turn the Derby into a source of dignity and honor instead of shame.

Read full article >>

The second is “2011 Kentucky Derby and Horse Injuries”, by Karyn Zoldan, The Tuscon Citizen, May 7, 2011:

The NY Times reported that 3,035 thoroughbreds, standard-breds and quarter horses died at racetracks between 2003 and 2008. The newspaper also reported that “of the approximately 15,000 licensed horse trainers, 1,335, or 8.9 percent, have been cited for medication violation.”

Eight Belles Breaks Down at 2008 Kentucky Derby
Eight Belles breaks down and euthanized on the track at Churchill Downs at the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Photographer Unknown.

Who can forget Eight Belles crossing the finish line, breaking both her ankles, and then being euthanized? I cannot. That’s what the Kentucky Derby means to me – horse abuse. Her trainer said, “She went out in glory. She went out a champion to us.” That means nothing to Eight Belles; she went out in senseless agony.

According to weather reports, Kentucky has seen much rain. There’s a 60 to 70 percent chance of rain on Kentucky Derby Day. Is a muddy track safe? I guess the Kentucky Derby will only be cancelled if there’s a tornado. Safety for horses or jockeys doesn’t seem to be a concern.

Read full article >>