The extraordinary number of horses euthanized after suffering life-ending injuries at Santa Anita Park’s winter meet has brought an onslaught of national media attention to horse racing.
Of all the media accounts, one has stuck with me. I have read it several times.
It appeared in the March 4, 2019, edition of the Los Angeles Times under the title, “Jane Smiley: The deaths at Santa Anita remind me why I don’t miss horse racing.”
Ms. Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist whose work includes The Accidental Tourist, A Thousand Acres, and Horse Heaven. She immersed herself in the world of the racetrack when doing researching for Horse Heaven.
Ms. Smiley’s op-ed may be the most important and prophetic piece written about the Santa Anita tragedies.
Ms. Smiley, and those of similar sensibilities, represents the future of horse racing.
I’ll explain in a moment.
First, you can read Ms. Smiley’s full op-ed. Below is an excerpt.
I first heard about the unusually high number of horses dying at Santa Anita Park — which led to the temporary closure of the racetrack last week — from a friend at the barn where I keep my horses. She is still interested in horse racing. I am not.
Like a lot of former fans, I never loved racing for the betting — I loved it for the beauty of the animals. What drew me was their beauty, their individuality, their pleasure in their job, whether it was running, jumping or standing still. But after breeding some, sending them to an honest and caring trainer, and writing a novel about the racetrack — a microcosm of capitalism itself — I backed away.
I do not know whether racing can be saved, or whether it should be saved. I’m no longer a fan.
I love thoroughbreds — the horses that racing has given us. Two hundred and fifty years of breeding for the track has produced a graceful, strong, intelligent and fascinating set of equines who are full of idiosyncrasies but also full of personality and willingness. They are easy to connect with and they like to get out and get moving.
I do not know whether racing can be saved, or whether it should be saved. I’m no longer a fan, and my trainer friend in France is not hopeful. American racing has made small attempts at reforming drug rules, footing, training rules, breeding, but evidently those reforms aren’t good enough. Without the betting, there is no money in it, and the betting pushes the authorities to overlook mistreatment. The 21 deaths at Santa Anita in two months are shocking and sad. Perhaps they signal the coming end, and there are plenty of Americans who won’t be sorry to see it go. Maybe I’m one of them.
When those of us in the business speculate on racing’s future, we tend to assume that those individuals working inside our bubble will determine our future. They could be the children of third- or fourth-generation horse owners, breeders, or trainers. Some might think they will be graduates of the Godolphin Flying Start Program or the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program.
We are in for a big surprise.
Ms. Smiley will determine horse racing’s future.
By this, I do not mean Ms. Smiley the individual. I mean what she represents. Ms. Smiley is “everyman.” She represents the sensibilities of the public at large. I believe that even those who have never owned horses can relate to the vulnerabilities of these exquisite creatures, and to the pain and suffering that may await them during their careers. That is the essence of Ms. Smiley’s view.
The horse racing industry has made many substantial advancements over the past few decades. A few examples include the establishment of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety and Integrity Alliance, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, and The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database. Add to these initiatives prerace soundness exams and a ban on anabolic steroids and it is obvious that the racing industry has made significant progress.
Then, why does it seem that whatever the racing industry does, it’s never enough?
It is because the general public’s sensitivities toward the welfare of animals are ever-evolving. It is difficult to hit a moving target. That’s why we need to be mindful not to calibrate our reforms in small incremental steps. If we do so, we will find ourselves out of step with the public at large.
Simply stated, if you are not doing everything, you are not doing enough.
The Stronach Group, which owns and operates Santa Anita, is acutely aware of the importance of the public’s acceptance of horse racing, as evidences by Stronach Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo’s recent interview with the Los Angeles Times:
“We look at customers, basically everyday people who understand our game, and then we have the public, which is the outside bubble,” he said. “We’re starting to look more and more at the outside bubble to make sure that we are watching and listening to what they’re concerned about because, even if they are not fans, they’re the ones that will go to Sacramento and they’re the ones that will come out and vote and end our sport. There’s more of them than we have customers, unfortunately.”
Could referendums on horse racing lead to its demise?
I don’t believe that Ms. Smiley would start a petition to abolish horse racing.
But that’s not the right question.
Would she sign one?