March 23, 2012
It’s been a busy week in equine America.
The racing community’s been debating the breakdown of horses at Aqueduct, on the set of “Luck” and in general. Separately, the equine welfare community’s been fighting new legislation and proposals to open horse slaughterhouses in Tennessee, Missouri and Oregon, while consumer and humane watchdog groups are fighting “ag-gag” rules, one of which was just signed into law by Utah’s Governor.
I hope those interested in fixing what’s broken in horse racing will focus on the larger humane and agribusiness issues, because they are all related. Unfortunately, ag-gag and horse slaughter aren’t on racing’s radar pretty much because racing’s focus is nearly always inward-facing. This is especially true of people and industries whose fortunes are tightly tied to how they’re publically perceived.
Racing’s image is tarnished right now as is PETA’s, the insular animal rights group that is often mistaken as the only group in America with a voice on issues relating to animal welfare, legislation and advocacy.
This has a lot to do with Ingrid Newkirk’s talent for creating spectacles (like her statement about bringing horse slaughter back to the U.S.) but also the manner in which PETA exposes things that do, in fact, need exposing. As it turns out, PETA provoked the racing industry and race fans to fury, first by asking questions about two horses that died on the set of HBO’s “Luck” series, then by demanding changes and third, by dragging the producer, trainer and a vet associated with “Luck” in front of the Los Angeles DA on what many in the racing community say are false and misleading charges of violating a California humane statute.
Horses breaking down is the public scandal that racing now has to confront, particularly in light of the independent task force put in place to investigate the Aqueduct breakdowns, The New York Times’ upcoming multi-part series on equine fatalities in Thoroughbred racing over the last three years and, of course, PETA’s request for an investigation on behalf of the three “Luck” horses that suffered catastrophic injuries and were quietly euthanized.
But if the racing industry, the new investigative team requested by NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and The New York Times fail to bring up the 26,600 Thoroughbreds (TBs) that got thrown away and slaughtered last year for horse meat, they will have failed to expose one of the most important issues dragging racing down in the gutter, and that’s the horses that get bred, shed and bled as part of racing’s business profitability model. These horses constituted 19% of all U.S. horses slaughtered in Canada and Mexico last year (out of a total of 138,000), and was equivalent to killing off 70% of the annual U.S. TB foal crop, according to a new case study using USDA figures.
Equine Mathematics Don’t Always Add Up
Let’s look at the numbers that the media is now focusing on: three horses dead on a TV production set, 18 dead racing at Aqueduct since November 30, and 750 dead of injuries on racetracks across the U.S.
This is a lot fewer fatalities than the 26,600 TBs slaughtered in Canada and Mexico, about the same number that have been slaughtered since before the Dallas Crown, Beltex and Cavel slaughter plants closed down in 2007 in Texas and Illinois.
Go over to the main racing news Web sites, however, and you’ll find no articles and little commentary on the slaughtered horses. Bring it up and people change the topic to something more comfortable: bashing PETA.
Well, that’s easy. PETA euthanized 1,900 shelter animals, rehoming only 24 of them. People also like to call them to task for grandstanding, pit-bull attack methods, and the salaries it pays officers. Well and good. But the racing industry is guilty of doing exactly the same things, as much as it doesn’t like to admit it.
Only in horse racing are the deaths of 1,900 cats and dogs deemed more heinous than the fatal breakdowns of 750 horses a year and the slaughter of 26,600 still in the prime of their lives. And let’s get something straight here. It’s not always the bad apples that spoil the good. That’s a common refrain and it’s just not true.
One Bad Apple Is Not The Point
The millions of American pets that get abandoned each year, and the ones that PETA is accused of killing weren’t discarded by the worst among us—a minority of people, to be sure. The three to four million cats and dogs that get put to sleep annually are discarded by people who claim to “love animals” but don’t make a commitment to their lifetime care.
So it is with Thoroughbred owners and trainers. It is not my wish to criticize unjustly, but the claim that only the bad breeders, owners and trainers are responsible for discarding the 26,600 horses slaughtered in 2011 just doesn’t wash.
Good breeders, owners and trainers do this. They may set aside money for racehorse retirement, they may find loving homes for some of the horses in their stables to make way for younger, faster animals, but all the horses that eventually get slaughtered would be alive today if the people that bred, bought them and trained them made a commitment to their lifetime care. If they won’t do it, why do they expect anyone else to?
I get regular flack from a turf writer over at Forbes.com who won’t discuss the slaughter issue and freely tells me I don’t understand racing (or writing, for that matter). Instead, she’s focused on racehorse retirement. Why? She thinks it important to focus on the good in racing. This to me is like focusing on carbon credits. They’re only needed because everything else is so polluted.
Sure, racehorse retirement (and other forms of rescue) is incredibly important to help save some of the discarded TBs and other breeds from slaughter, but to focus on retirement and treat the other issues with kid gloves just lets the main culprits off the hook.
Slaughter is a safety valve for these individuals, but no one talks about that, either, all of which makes the new ag-gag laws, the newly proposed slaughterhouses in Tennessee, Missouri and Oregon and the new laws legalizing horse slaughter a far more urgent issue to address, with wider, more serious and long-lasting implications.
Better Reporting Needed
The New York Times has done an abysmal job of covering slaughter, offering up one factually compromised 2011 article by NYT Kansas City Bureau Chief A.G. Sulzberger that was full of pro-slaughter disinformation. Last week, the Pulitzer-prize winning paper again published a severely underweight article about a Bureau of Land Management proposed wild horse “ecosanctuary” that failed to educate readers on any aspect of the BLM’s practice of rounding up and warehousing wild horses, not to mention its close relationship with pro-slaughter groups and ranchers.
Both issues are worthy of the same scrutiny, expertise and resources the paper is now committing to peering into the bowels of horse racing—especially since 80% of Americans are against horse slaughter, according to a recent ASPCA survey conducted by Lake Associates.
It will be a mistake if The New York Times only considers the performance side of racing and neglects the larger “horse industry” in its upcoming series. By that, I mean the people who make their living in agriculture (cattle ranchers, breeders of herding stock and Western performance horses) who are also the ones angling for new slaughter plants to be built in the U.S. and the ones who populate the Ag committees in Congress and control most important legislation affecting horses, wild horse and burro protection, food safety issues and the humane treatment of slaughter-bound animals.
I told one Paulick Report reader who was particularly angry at me for writing about “Luck” that he should keep an eye on the ranchers because when it comes to horse influence in America, they’re the ones that pass the laws—not the TB people. He brushed me off. Ranching? What does that have to do with racing? Boy, you really don’t know anything about horses, do you?
I get that a lot from racing fans. No one appreciates an “outsider” questioning the integrity of a sport they love while at the same time suggesting that the horse industry is a big tent, with horses other than TBs in it.
Well the slaughter issue unifies many of the different breed registries looking for an outlet for unwanted horses and retired breeding stock, and the media needs to address that. Lord knows, I’ve tried doing that in all my articles on Forbes.com, but it’s time for other influential news sources to come forward and identify all the various stakeholders and all the interlocking issues for the public—and not just relate it to the upcoming Kentucky Derby, either.
The New York Times has as good a shot at putting that story in proper context as anybody. I hope they take the time to do it from a non-racing centric position, though, because once they’ve spoken, a lot of people are going to go right back to sleep. Sad as that may be, it’s a lot easier than facing what’s really going on out there with the horses.
UPDATE: The New York Times story Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys, appeared March 24 and no mention of the slaughter issue. Hoping this will be part of their coverage of this important topic. Will have to wait and see.
Rounding Up America’s Wild Horses (photo gallery)
Who’s Who in Capitol Hill’s Horse Meat Power Posse (photo gallery)