Racing for Money. Dying for ... real estate?

This week I went to Santa Anita to watch the Breeders Cup. It wasn't a long planned trip, rather a spontaneous decision bred of finding myself an hour away, with time to spare, and available $25 tickets.

The Santa Anita race track has been in the news for controversial horse deaths. That's a fact hard to escape. I have to admit that controversy didn't stop me from attending the Breeders Cup meet, but it did give me pause. It also made me think.
Santa Anita, November 2019
As a horse person, I'm intimately aware that horses are large animals on a constant suicide mission. A wrong step can force their deaths. Slight dehydration can murder them in a day. For god's sake, a minor scrape can make their skin revolt, resulting in sepsis and a lingering and painful end. Horses die. It is unfortunate, but also a fact of life dealing with these crazy animals.

Because of this knowledge, I have been skeptical of the furor over the tragedies at Santa Anita and other US race tracks. When I hear a news broadcast mention the issue, I only hear the lack of knowledge of the animals and confusing conjectures. I hear the mention of 37 deaths in a year, but am not provided with the information of whether that is outside the norm. How does this compare to other industries? How does this compare to pasture pets?
Bast on the track, His jockey is a saint.
Hell, my barn lost 5 horses in one year recently (colic, tragic accident, age, other). I am sure that my barn's % of horses dead is much higher than Santa Anita, but PETA isn't knocking on their door to scream about how inhumane turning a horse out into a paddock could be.

I'm not saying any of this to excuse the clear issues at US tracks, and Santa Anita specifically. No. My issue is twofold. I want newscasters to be more responsible for informing consumers of the actual issues and reality of the situation. Sensationalizing the deaths of animals helps no one. By radicalizing anti-racing groups, this sort of coverage hurts the owner and trainers, the industry, and the animals themselves.
Bast, headed to race.
At the same time, the industry and race tracks around the country need to be investigating these issues. Why are veterinarians who pull too many horses from races due to suspected issues overruled, moved, or replaced? We know racing a horse is one of the most physically demanding sports with the highest likelihood of a small injury turning catastrophic. Vet crews should be encouraged to be overly cautious, not actively discouraged.
Mom watches the horses load at Santa Anita.
We know drugging is a serious issue. Masking an mammal's pain response can result in further injury, sometimes even catastrophic damage. This is just a true for humans as for horses. Pain is an important indicator to an animal to be careful, keeping smaller injuries from flaring into much larger problems. Why do we allow horses to race on any drugs? Why does racing not have a zero tolerance policy?
Bast's one and only win.
I know many people who support more stringent vetting and a zero (or close) drug policy. However, we have to also understand that race tracks need full race cards to make money. Two or three horses in each race is not profitable, and the margin for race tracks is often slim anyway. Often it is this need to keep races full that allows the vetting to slip, or the drug policy to be overlooked or kept to a low bar.

This is wrong, but it is also keeping the industry around. Race tracks around this country are under assault and have been for many years. Their property is expansive, and often in prime real estate locations. Just look at Santa Anita. In the middle of an LA suburb, the track must maintain a very high profit ratio to keep the owners from selling to real estate developers. Real estate doesn't care about horses in the slightest. As horse owners and lovers, this is a truth feel far too familiarly. Land is a premium, and suburbia ever expanding.
Santa Anita is lovely. Plenty of people would love to make this land expensive housing and restaurants.
How do we fix the profit margins to allow racing to survive and focus on the health of the horses themselves? We need to find a way to make tracks more sustainable in the face of the ever growing development onslaught. If we don't, we might as well kiss the thoroughbred industry goodbye in this country.

As a lover of racehorses and the sport that brings them into my life, I would hate to see shopping malls kill the sport of kings, and a multitude of horses right along with it. I would hate to see the industry professionals who pour their sweat, blood, and life savings into these powerful (yet so fragile) creatures left out in the cold. The problem isn't as simple as I lay it out here, but I hope I've given you things to think about. I hope you'll talk to others about the issues facing the race industry. I hope you'll help fight for the lives and livelihoods of the race horses we all love. There's more than one path to improving and saving this industry, but if we all work at it we can help save the lives and livelihoods for the horses and humans alike.


  1. +1. wish I had something else to add but really you summed all of it up perfectly.

  2. I absolutely 100% love your post. I, too, have many of the same questions. We don't have any historical data to determine if racing has gotten safer, or worse. Or how it compares to any other equine pursuit in terms of fatalities/injuries/etc. The knee-jerk reaction of many to 'ban racing, racing is cruel', the very real ignorance of the masses regarding horses, and the too slow, untimely response of the fractured governing bodies of racing to respond with any real, significant change makes me fear for the future of racing, and sometimes other equine pursuits.

  3. This is such a tough one. The media dramatize everything, especially things that the public has no actual knowledge of... it makes outrage easy to come by.

    I was kind of hoping that horse racing would start getting its act together a little bit more by now. The basic horsemanship still needs a lot of work. I too don't want to see the industry go down in flames, it would be a tragedy in a lot of ways. Eventing has faced some of the same challenges, there are no easy answers.

  4. Well said! All of it. I'm with Megan, I've got nothing to add because you addressed every lingering question I have wondered and more.

  5. 100% this. Totally my thoughts too.


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