This is no time for neutrality.
With horse racing under unprecedented pressure to put its barns in order, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association finally weighed in Wednesday in support of a bill designed to prevent the return of a domestic horse slaughter industry and to prohibit the export of horses to international slaughterhouses.
For more than a decade, the NTRA had been officially uncommitted on similar legislation, bemoaning underfunded solutions and unintended consequences. But with heat rises on racing from politicians, prosecutors and animal welfare activists, executives have recognized the need to stop quibbling and start speaking unequivocally.
“Clearly the public is very aware; they’re focused on our industry right now, and that’s a factor,” NTRA President Alex Waldrop said Friday. “The time was right to change our position. … Times have changed for us.”
In a letter to Congress, Waldrop distanced the NTRA from the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act of 2008 because of concerns about the industry’s physical capacity to care for unwanted horses and the lack of a funding mechanism to provide that care.
There remains a significant gap between the number of retired racehorses that can be re-purposed and those with no appealing alternatives, but that gap has been narrowing. The U.S. thoroughbred population has been in steep decline for decades, a function of the shrinking size of the annual foal crop.
According to the Jockey Club, more than 150,000 thoroughbreds were active in racing or breeding as recently as 1991. Last year, there were just 80,974: 49,390 racing starters; 30,273 mares bred and 1,311 stallions.
Simultaneously, the European Union’s ban on the importation of horse meat processed in Mexico has diminished demand.
Waldrop estimates that between 7,500 and 10,000 American thoroughbreds are still slaughtered annually, but more than 4,000 per year can now be “re-homed.” Though it’s unclear how the industry would absorb thousands of additional horses should the Safeguard American Food Exports Act become law, it’s plain that solving this problem has attained high priority.
When racing executives met last August in Saratoga Springs, New York, for a 66th annual conference on “Matters Pertaining to Racing,” animal welfare issues were prominent in their discussions. Jockey Club President James Gagliano cited polling by the McKinsey consulting firm that found 50% of casual fans said they would stop betting if they knew horses were mistreated. Within racing’s broader fan base, the No. 1 concern revealed in McKinsey’s research was the treatment of horses in retirement.
Those matters have gained sharper focus with the recent spate of equine fatalities at Santa Anita, with increased scrutiny of industry practices nationwide and with HBO’s airing of graphic slaughterhouse video on its “Real Sports” news magazine show last month.
Wednesday’s announcement by the NTRA coincided with the introduction of the Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2019 on the floor of the U.S. Senate, a bill that would establish a national anti-doping authority and supplant the sport’s inconsistent oversight of 38 racing districts.
Also Wednesday, racing-centric publisher Ray Paulick declared the sport to be at a crossroads.
“One road leads toward national reforms for thoroughbred racing,” Paulick wrote. “The other toward likely extinction.”
Though the risks of extinction might seem remote here in horse country, numerous racing interests recognize the perception of animal abuse as an existential threat to their sport. The threat is taken so seriously in California that officials have included input from animal welfare groups philosophically opposed to horse racing in drafting new policies.
Such concessions reflect racing’s new reality and the belief that the sport’s survival may depend to some extent on accommodating its enemies. Reporting on a conference call earlier this month, Paulick quoted Thoroughbred Owners of California President Greg Avioli to that effect.
“Animal welfare, animal rights organizations have a much larger membership base in California than does the horse racing industry broadly defined,” Avioli said. “So our strategy is to work with their leaders. And their leaders, whether it is the Humane Society or PETA, don’t always say things that are very nice about us, and they definitely don’t always agree with what we do. But we have engaged them at every level, and we are going to continue to do that. Our resources are not the same as their resources.”
Accordingly, this is no time for obstinance.
In agreeing to the gradual elimination of race-day Lasix from stakes races in April, a coalition of leading tracks made a timely show of unity in a notoriously fragmented business. Since then, Churchill Downs and other prominent operators have announced a series of initiatives designed to enhance the welfare of horses and restore the confidence of customers.
“I think the industry is in perpetual reform mode,” Waldrop said. “Unfortunately, we don’t move fast enough. … But we cannot take for granted that we’re going to be able to (continue to) do what we love.”
The notion that horses become expendable as their expenses exceed their income is an idea whose time may have elapsed.
“Years ago, the model was to retire horses on big farms, and they would become lawn ornaments,” Waldrop said. “We warehoused horses, did not euthanize, and we ran out of space.”
Stopping the slaughter of thoroughbreds could create another space crunch and an ongoing financial burden on the racing business. That said, the failure to respond to a crisis is a good way to go out of business.