This one is different. This time, the people are not going to buy that tired, old "It's part of the game" line. The public is outraged by the death of Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby and asking some very serious, very appropriate questions about whether horse racing is tantamount to animal cruelty.
This is usually where the sport buries its collective head in the sand, tells people how much everyone involved with the game loves his or her horses, and hopes the controversy dies down. This time, that's not going to work. The horse racing industry has to be proactive and take some severe measures to make this sport safer and more humane for the animals that compete and the humans who ride them.
It has to send a message: We admit we have a problem, and we are going to fix it. To do nothing of substance is unacceptable and will convince a large segment of the population that horse racing, as a New York Times columnist suggested, isn't that different from animal fighting.
Horse racing must:
1. Ban all drugs. How can the sport possibly justify allowing horses to race on steroids, painkillers and diuretics that dehydrate the animal? With the exception of Canada, no other country in the world allows anything but hay, oats and water. There can be no doubt that the proliferation of drugs, illegal and otherwise, in the sport has contributed to the increasing fragility of these animals.
2. Control excess use of the whip. I doubt very much that the actions of Gabriel Saez in any way contributed to the death of Eight Belles, but the sight of a jockey beating a horse in the stretch with a whip contributes to racing's image problems. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals already has come out demanding that Seaz be suspended for his use of the whip.
Jockeys insist the whip is necessary to help control their mounts, but do they really need to beat the tar out of a horse to make it run harder than it would without the punishment? Is that not inhumane? Many countries have rules against excessive use of the whip, and jockeys who have broken those rules have received severe punishments. The same must be done in this country.
3. Convert to synthetic tracks.
Synthetic tracks are obviously not perfect, and they will never prevent all catastrophic injuries, but they are considerably safer than traditional dirt surfaces. Would Barbaro, George Washington and Eight Belles still be alive had the Preakness, Breeders' Cup Classic and Kentucky Derby been run on a synthetic surface? The answer is, quite possibly.
Eight U.S. tracks have synthetic surfaces, but there has been no movement to convert any additional tracks from dirt to synthetic. Maybe it's time for more racing commissions to do what they did in California, mandate that tracks convert to a synthetic surface.
4. Promote longer races.
The breeding industry continues to accentuate speed over soundness and stamina, no doubt another contributing factor to the alarming rate of catastrophic injuries. Who can blame them? There are great rewards out there for fast, precocious horses who need not go any farther than a mile. Once, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, one of the most important races on the calendar, was run at two miles. No more. Even the mile-and-a-quarter distance is starting to disappear.
The only way breeders are going to start producing sounder, sturdier horses is to create a system in which those horses have much to gain on the racetrack. We can start by making the Breeders' Cup Classic a mile and a half and the Breeders' Cup Distaff a mile and a quarter and increasing the distance of many other major races.
5. Take meaningful strides to stop the slaughter of horses.
Though there are some very generous and good-hearted people in the sport, the industry has, by and large, a deplorable record when it comes to dealing with the issues of caring for its retirees. Retirement organizations are largely left to fend for themselves, scraping pennies together with little financial support from the industry. The result is there is not enough money out there to prevent the deaths of thousands of racehorses each year in the slaughterhouse.
People are tired of seeing horses die. Perhaps some of the reactions that have come from the Eight Belles situation are over the top, but that's not the point. Horse racing has to react to public sentiment, something it has never been very good at doing. It has to do so because it's the right thing to do for the horses and because it has to deal with a public relations nightmare.
Are we that far from the point when sponsors pull their ads from Triple Crown telecasts because of pressure put on them by animal rights activists and/or the media outcry over all these deaths?
Horse racing has come to a crossroads. It had better go down the right path.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org