Most horse racing fans are hooked the first moment they watch a race. Perhaps it’s a gene one has or doesn’t have. I first attended the races at age 14 and it remains one of the greatest days of my life. Not because I won—I didn’t experience a winning day until several gambling junkets later—but it opened a window of great joy, excitement, and entertainment that has lasted a lifetime. I don’t regret one day I have spent at the track.
Horse racing is a game played outside, in magnificent track venues—so unlike sitting in a windowless casino looking at blackjack hands or at a poker table with seven other irritable, poorly dressed men. At the track, a blur of colored silks flies by aboard the most gorgeous creatures at 40 mile per hour! And your money is riding on one of them.
Horse racing is hurting today. Not simply because of the spate of equine deaths at Santa Anita recently, but from technology that is changing the gambling industry. I just finished two days at the Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita. Attendance for the two days was 109,054 and total wagering was $154,000,000, an increase of 14% over last year at Churchill Downs, and the fourth consecutive year of increase. The event was a magnificent success—except that it will all be overshadowed by another horse death at the track, the 37th fatality since the current Santa Anita meeting began December 26, 2019.
According to the Equine Injury Database, total Santa Anita horse racing deaths in 2018 totaled 18 from 8,833 starts, and have averaged 20.6 since 2014 when the number of racing days increased to its current level after the closing of Hollywood Park in 2013. However, the total number of “fatalities” from racing and training—excluding illness—as reported by the California Horse Racing Board for the 12 months July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018, was unchanged from 2019, at 37 deaths.
Most fans do not realize that Santa Anita has nearly 1,500 horses stabled and in training. Nearly all of these horses have a saddle and an exercise rider on them every day for at least a light workout of one to two miles. If 80% of them trained six months per year at Santa Anita, this adds up to more than 200,000 workouts annually! You simply cannot have 200,000 workouts and nearly 9,000 racing starts and not expect equine fatalities. If you had 1,500 horses living in open fields like wild mustangs, what would the fatality rate be from coyotes, weather, and other natural calamities? Would it be better for those 1,500 horses not to be born at all, than to suffer 37 deaths annually? We need to be humane and do all that can be done for our resplendent horses, and we can always do more, but there will be fatalities whenever thousands of thoroughbreds are training and racing.
I have been involved as a fan and an owner in the thoroughbred industry for more than 45 years. One thing I am certain of is that the humans involved love their horses. Being a thoroughbred owner is almost certainly a losing financial proposition for 95% of all horse owners. Horse owners and their trainers have a vested interest in keeping horses alive and healthy, in order to enjoy their activity in racing and to attempt to recoup their sizable investments. If a trainer has a racehorse die under their care, it’s a bad way to keep their respective owners happy and investing with them. The trainers and grooms endure long days for typically low-level pay, except for the handful of elite trainers. The horse racing industry supports tens of thousands of jobs. I do not believe state and local politicians will ultimately destroy an entire industry, especially as horse racing produces millions in annual state tax revenue. Racehorses run at high speed on ankles smaller than humans’ ankles, and there will always be injuries and, unfortunately, equine deaths.
Solutions to These Issues:
- California tracks are continually improving their safety protocols. They have implemented real and specific improvements such as increased veterinarian scrutiny of all runners, stricter medication guidelines, and increased drug testing. The racetrack surfaces are closely tested for safety and have been made “deeper” to slow down the racing surface, providing more cushioning for the beautiful, swift animals skimming over the surfaces.
- Many believe problems were exacerbated during the winter months when cold temperatures and large amounts of rain led to the Santa Anita track being constantly “sealed” into a hard pack condition similar to beach sand at the water line. I believe we should simply not race when the racetrack is “sloppy” from excessive rain—even though it is perhaps not unsafe. Why not err on the side of caution and present to racing’s critics that we are trying everything possible to insure horse safety?
- A personal confession: I wrote this article originally stating that we should “invite” PETA and other animal rights protestors into the backstretch to view firsthand the love and care that racehorses are lavished with each day in the barns of racetracks. Then I read a fantastic article by Donna Brother in the 11/14/2019 edition of the Paulick Report 11.14.2019 . She educated me that PETA is not a reasonable organization that can be cooperated with. I researched PETA thereafter and learned that PETA is against all pet ownership of all animals, including dogs and cats, and should be “free of all human interaction”. They can not have such radical opinions changed. They do not want anyone to even ride a horse- yet alone race them. I then was further educated on this issue of animal rights protestors while listening to a fabulous podcast interview of retired racing executive Steven Christ, by Peter Fornatale Steven Crist Interview. I was persuaded that the protestors will not settle for anything less than the abolition of racing, and to engage them is to invite disaster; work to make racing safer yes- but to engage with them foolhardy.
- We must educate the public, the legislators, and more importantly, the media, that racing is a humane sport and that we love our horses as an industry. Yes, we should invite these people into the racetrack, to witness the care given our beautiful, noble, and courageous animals. We must educate them that as with all domesticated animals, there will unfortunately be accidents, just as dogs run in front of cars, and cats are lost to disease and predators.
- Make “Thoroughbred After Care” a top priority at every racetrack, and allocate a small percentage of every racing dollar to the guaranteed safe relocation and retirement of every racehorse.
Horse racing was held at the Olympic Games in 776 BC, and I believe racing will survive the current crisis at Santa Anita and other tracks. The industry may be investigated or possibly even temporarily suspended until it can convince regulators that all that can be done to protect the horse is being done. It may get contentious, but racing will continue to find ways to be safer for the horses and make other changes in order to weather the current challenges.
Mark Paul – Author
“The Greatest Gambling Story Ever Told”
The Greatest Gambling Story Ever Told is an inspiring personal narrative about a filly who broke through the male-dominated world of horse racing and inspired crowds of men and women alike, along with a trio of gamblers who embark on an unforgettable adventure that’s as epic as the historic victory of Winning Colors. It’s Seabiscuit meets Narcos, and the best true-life gambling story ever told.When the gamblers unknowingly place their longshot bet with members of a suspected drug cartel at a racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico, they must figure out how to claim their prize – without getting killed in the process.
Mark Paul lives for action and adventure at locations where gambling occurs. He began his gambling career by sneaking into Hollywood Park and Santa Anita at age 16. Mark made a 5,000-mile journey in a sailboat through the Panama Canal and then on to the island of Jamaica, to attend Caribbean and South American horse races. He completed these gambling junkets alone, via bus, to gamble at the local thoroughbred racetracks. He was a participant in a $1 million win on the 1988 Kentucky Derby with two other gamblers through a bet placed in Tijuana, Mexico. He has owned interests in 34 racehorses. Mark has enjoyed a long commercial real estate career. With his wife, Renee, Mark raised over $750,000 for City of Hope Cancer research through their events held at the Santa Anita racetrack.