Dear horsemen, horseplayers, those on the inside and those on the outside like me,
On March 14th, 2019 a horse broke down in front of me as I was shooting. Her name was Princess Lili B. I’ll never forget it. I’ve seen breakdowns – I was there when Spitfire broke down, and I have an amazing shot of him just before that moment, one I might never share. He looked like perfection. I was there for three others out of the 23 that died during these weeks at Santa Anita, a number that looks to rise if nothing is done. When Princess Lili B’s front legs went out, to watch her try to get them back under her, to see a horse on what was left of her knees…
I’m not a writer anymore. If you ask for my qualifications, I’ll tell you to go search my full name on Google and see what you find. My seven novels are published by some of the most independent of independent publishers, so perhaps you’ll think these less qualifying. The point is, I can write, and I think now is the time to write this piece that has been sitting in my heart for a couple weeks now.
I can and did add my #IAmHorseRacing post on Twitter. But I am not horse racing. I am the outsider who knows my place and just tries not to get kicked out by security every day because I refuse to hang out down at Clockers Corner. Anyone who knows me knows I hate being harassed, especially sexually, and Clockers Corner is one place I can guarantee that will happen to me. So I stay as far away as I can. Let me tell you though, sexual harassment is a part of horse racing; don’t try and tell me differently. It’s not a large group of people, but it does always come from the horsemen, not the fans. That is a story for another day though, and this is about the horses.
Most of you don’t know me. You might see my photos online, maybe like a few, leave a comment, and I appreciate everyone who does. I don’t work for the track; in fact, I work for no one. The few who have bought my photos have done so for marketing purposes. Anyone else can ask, and I’ll give you photos for free.
You don’t know me for a reason; because I’m not here for fame. I’m not here to have my name known, and perhaps that is why I am suited to call everyone out right here, right now.
Horse racing is hated. You might stop here and say, “But I love horse racing!” Yes, you do. I do. A lot of us do, but we are the few and far between. The public image of horse racing is a terrible one. They see horses breaking down, being whipped to run faster, being drugged, and sent to slaughter, and what other choice do they have but to hate? Perhaps those people have never loved a horse, or don’t understand the thoroughbred’s instinct to run, but it is the truth. You have to look outside the confines of your barn and track and speak to a random stranger on the street. You’ll hear what I hear, what I’m told so often; “Horse racing is cruel, and I wish they would shut the tracks down forever.”
Though most people don’t think about the ramifications of closing horse racing forever, and would never take in a displaced thoroughbred, this is a harsh reality we all must face if we want to save the sport we love. However, if racing folk continue to plead to run their bleeders and continue to support whip use because it is ‘safe,’ to name a few things, this sport will not survive. I am speaking from the heart, but I am also speaking because the place I love, my so-called ‘happy place,’ the place I am looking at right now from my office window, is now a place I am reluctant to go. The inability of all of us to work together and move forward for the love of the horse is what has caused this, and I am stuck wondering if the racing community will ever get their heads out of the sand and take public relations to heart.
As a member of the public, removing myself as a racing fan, I wonder why I am not invited to attend meetings, why they seem to be mostly held in secret, and the Arcadia community at large has no idea what is happening at Santa Anita. They only know the track is ‘bad’ and horses keep dying. Then the Stronach group tries to implement race day medication bans and a whip ban then backs away after protest from trainers and jockeys. The Arcadia public wonders why they could not attend such meetings and voice their opinion, why in hell any trainer would run a horse they have termed a ‘bleeder,’ and why medication is used in the first place. After all, they wouldn’t give their sore dog aspirin then make them run agility. They’d let their dog rest until they were no longer sore then work them back up to a full schedule of action. When racing folk tell me they know trainers inject horses with sore knees and ankles then let them not only gallop but full on work… that says something. If the everyday public heard the stories I have heard, racing would already be done.
So I’m going to pose the questions posed to me by members of the non-racing public.
Is there something wrong with the track itself? The racing community knows the breakdowns happened both on the downhill turf and the main track, but the regular public doesn’t know that. Some don’t even realize there is a turf course. If there is nothing wrong with the track, as the studies have shown, why has a press release not been widely circulated? Why aren’t the results of those tests available to read? The public will continue to believe the track is the issue, and if there is evidence against this, why keep it to yourselves? And why is it so hard to shell out the cash to replace the racing surface, even if it is just to appease the non-racing public? Does the track’s image not matter to those who own it?
On the subject of bleeding, studies seem to show that bleeding is detected in 50 to 60% of horses, and 90% have bled at least once. This is when the horse is working the most strenuously. However, the lack of study in bleeders and preventing bleeding has led the racing community to use medication. And I know the public hates medication, especially when they don’t understand it. The studies I’ve found seem older, some even over 20 years old. Where are the new studies? Isn’t this important? Bleeding in thoroughbreds has been reported for over 300 years, which would be around the time of the founding of the breed through the three foundation stallions (the Godolphin Arabian, the Darley Barb and the Byerley Turk). Why can’t I find more studies? And why are the studies I can find so different, with some saying only 1 to 2% bled after a race (with blood showing from a nostril)? What is the truth behind race day medication – is it really needed? Are horses running at Santa Anita being medicated more heavily than other places?
What about the curious fact that many, if not most, modern thoroughbreds currently racing in the United States can trace themselves back to Native Dancer at least once, if not multiple crosses? What is the effect of inbreeding on horses? In researching the pedigree of the 23 horses who died at Santa Anita, cross checking with horses from other tracks and horses still working at Santa Anita, I have not found one American bred thoroughbred horse running who cannot trace back to Native Dancer. Granted, I haven’t researched every single horse, but I find it interesting that every horse I’ve looked at shares this common ancestor. Most have multiple lines, showing half-brothers and sisters being bred, and in some cases full siblings being bred. As human beings, we do not date our cousins and breed with them because we know what happens when relatives mate. Why do we mate horses who are close relatives? These crosses occur mainly through the Northern Dancer and Mr Prospector lines, but other crosses occur. Currently we do not seem to inbreed much as far as close siblings, but have we reached the level where the issues start showing up, occurring because of those past inbreeding? Have we diluted the lines?
And the issue of the whip. I understand its use, and I applaud the limiting of its current use, but the majority of the public do not. How do we educate the public that the whip can be used as a safety measure when they see jockeys striking horses tens of times to urge a horse to move faster? I have heard racing folk say that horses have thick skin, and they’ve never seen a horse injured from a whip. I am a casual observer and photographer, and I have seen multiple horses return from a race with welts and bleeding lines from whip use. I’ve seen horses shy from the whip and cause accidents. Yes, a whip can keep a horse in line if a rider feels the horse might bolt, etc., but the public doesn’t see that part of a race. They only see the bad. And where are we to educate them? Nowhere to be seen.
So racing community, who are we? Are we an industry who drugs our horses in order for them to run, are we willing and in fact begging to use whips as a tool to make a horse run faster, are we truthfully injecting horses with medications to mask their pain? Who are we indeed? I know who the public thinks we are. Do you?
You might be thinking, “This isn’t me!” I’m sure that is true for some. Yet, I know riders see horses being injected then take them out to gallop or work knowing the horse is sore. I know riders might get yelled at if they bring a sore horse back to the barn instead of working it. I know there are horses running now who should not be, but jockeys get on their backs and strike them with their whip in a useless attempt to get the horse to run faster. I know horses get drugged with medications that might not be detectible. I know this happens. There is a reason why these racing people talk to people like me, because they know I will never use their names. But if more like them would be willing to speak out, the truth would really come to light and maybe some of these practices would stop. Perhaps we would treat our horses better, and maybe fewer would find their way to the kill pens.
You might now be thinking I’m just spouting off issues at hand with no idea on how to fix them. You’d be right. I don’t know how to fix them, but I have some ideas. First is transparency. It was incredible difficult to find the list of the 22 horses who died (at that point in time – Arms Runner was instantly identified due to it being race day), and even the list I eventually found posted on Twitter was missing death dates. It lacked cause of death outside of the surface they worked on, with one exception of a cardiac event for Dancing Harbor. So what broke and why? Was the injury previously detected, or perhaps very insignificant prior to the breakdown? Why types of fractures are we seeing? Do these types of fractures relate to the surface or something else entirely? Was the broken leg ever injected with a medication to alleviate soreness or injury?
Transparency doesn’t just include info on the current deceased. What about the horses still running? A racing program tells you if the horse is running on Lasix but nothing else, and CHRB tells you very little in their reports. Has the horse ever been injured, if so what type of injury, and what types of meds are they on? Where does one find that information at?
Transparency continues with the public. Let people into your meetings, let them give their thoughts and commentary without rejecting them for not being ‘knowledgeable’ about the sport. How about educating the public about the sport? Why is the whip in use? What does Lasix do, and what are the studies that show its usage has no long lasting effects (if this is even true)? What is being done to combat laminitis in those horses that are injured? What the heck is the purpose of a tongue tie?
If we turn our backs and ignore these questions, we alienate ourselves. If we alienate ourselves, we lose support. We lose support…we die.
Horses don’t scream in pain. We have to scream for them.