The year 2019 will go down in the history of horse racing as the year an unsuspecting general public learned that racehorses die on the track. It will also be known as the year the racing industry got serious about embracing reform. The full effects of the reform efforts, which I’ll detail in a moment, will likely not be known for another year or two.
Your opinion of the media may run in one direction or another. You may either “blame” or “thank” the media for its coverage. Regardless, neither the public’s awakening to racetrack realities nor the subsequent efforts to improve the sport would have happen without the unrelenting glare of the nationwide media spotlight.
That is why I have chosen, in a walkover, The Media as 2019’s Person of the Year.
By media, I do not mean the day-in-and-day-out coverage by industry trade journals. That does not mean there hasn’t been some very fine reporting from many racing industry outlets. It has been, however, the critical reporting of publications such as the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and USA Today, coupled with national television networks and their local affiliates, that has brought unprecedented pressure on the industry to attempt to reform itself.
Epicenter – Santa Anita Park
It is unnecessary to relive in this space each fatality or press account. There are, however, a few moments that have defined the year.
Racing canceled: Let’s begin with the reporting after a near daily body count reached a gut-check point on March 5, 2019. That’s when, after the 21st fatality since opening day on December 26, 2018, Santa Anita Park announced it had canceled racing and training indefinitely to evaluate the safety of its main track.
The USA Today story, titled, “Storied California track Santa Anita cancels racing after 21 horse deaths since late December,” from March 5, 2019, was one of many stories that week that blanketed the nation.
Calls for closure: Upon reopening and several fatality-free weeks of racing, the catastrophic breakdowns continued. The deaths prompted California Senator Diane Feinstein to twice call for the track to close.
Hall of Fame trainer excluded: The following excerpt from a June 23, 2019, piece from the New York Post, titled, “Hall of Fame trainer banned at Santa Anita after horse death,” is indicative of the national exposures this story received.
Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was banned by the ownership of Santa Anita on Saturday after a fourth horse from his stable died — and the 30th overall — at the Southern California track.
The Stronach Group, which owns the track, said in a statement that effective immediately Hollendorfer “is no longer welcome to stable, race or train his horses at any of our facilities.”
Governor speaks: Anyone who believed that the newly elected governor of California, Gavin Newsom, would be an apologist for the horse racing industry was disheartened by these comments in a September 23, 2019, The New York Times article, titled, “Gov. Gavin Newsom Says Horse Racing in California Needs Reform.”
“What happened last year was unacceptable, and all of the excuses be damned. We own that going into the next season, and we’re going to have to do something about it,” Newsom said at a meeting with reporters for The New York Times. “I’ll tell you, talk about a sport whose time is up unless they reform. That’s horse racing. Incredible abuses to these precious animals and the willingness to just to spit these animals out and literally take their lives is a disgrace.”
Reforms – bit by bit
In U.S. horse racing, the is no such thing as national reform. It is always arduous state-by-state trench warfare. So it’s not surprising that the California horse racing industry and, specifically, Santa Anita Park, which at the epicenter of the media glare, have initiated the quickest and most thorough reform proposal to date.
The date that the tectonic plates of reform shifted was March 14, 2019, when Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of The Stronach Group, which owns and operates Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, stunned the racing industry with “An Open Letter about the Future of Thoroughbred Racing in California.” In it, she outlined the following reforms:
These revisions comprise best practices currently employed at racetracks around the world:
- Banning the use of Lasix.
- Increasing the ban on legal therapeutic NSAIDS, joint injections, shockwave therapy, and anabolic steroids.
- Complete transparency of all veterinary records.
- Significantly increasing out-of-competition testing.
- Increasing the time required for horses to be on-site prior to a race.
- A substantial investment by The Stronach Group in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.
- Horses in training are only allowed therapeutic medication with a qualified veterinary diagnosis.
Additionally, it is time to address the growing concern about use of the riding crop. A cushion crop should only be used as a corrective safety measure. While we firmly believe our jockeys have not purposely been mistreating their mounts, it is time to make this change.
One month later, on April 18, 2019, a coalition of leading Thoroughbred racing associations and organizations announced a new horse racing initiative that commits to eliminating the use of the medication furosemide (Lasix) for 2-year-olds in 2020 and in stakes races held at their racetracks beginning in 2021. Coalition racetracks that have signed on to this initiative include all tracks owned or operated by Churchill Downs Incorporated, the New York Racing Association Inc., and The Stronach Group, as well as Del Mar, Keeneland, Lone Star Park, Remington Park, Los Alamitos Racecourse (Thoroughbred), Oaklawn Park, and Tampa Bay Downs. Taken together, these tracks represent 86 percent of the stakes races assigned graded or listed status in the United States in 2018.
Earlier this month, a consortium of many of the above-mentioned tracks, along with the Breeders’ Cup, announced the formation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, which has a goal of uniform and progressive safety reform.
Taken together, the above proposals are unprecedented in scope and, if implemented on a nationwide basis, transformative.
Although some of these reforms have been implemented in some states, many are mere recommendations pending regulatory review. The focus moving into 2020 is on individual racing commissions to approve these proposals. In many states, they face an uncertain future.
One thing is certain: The media will be watching and will report every step and misstep the racing industry makes. Just as they did this year.