It’s the time of year when the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club cranks up its well-oiled PR machine. Today, the $100,000 Oceanside Stakes, with a 14-horse field of 3-year-olds competing on the infield grass race track, will kick off a 36 day summer season. Are you excited yet? Don’t be.
There will be hats — outrageous hats, funny hats, and flamboyant head coverings–worn by people competing for a $5000 prize and 15 seconds of fame on local TV news. Later this year, the famed Breeder’s Cup, two days of racing moving from track to track each fall, will draw international attention to Del Mar.
The celebratory ‘cool as ever’ public relations slogan, opening day promotions, concerts and celebrity events barely mask the stench of death surrounding the Del Mar race track. It’s not just the (too many) horses dying; it’s the sport itself.
The Sweet Kiss of death…The story of jockey Frank Hays, who died (riding a horse named Sweet Kiss) mid-race from a heart attack, but whose body stayed upright to the finish line and won a 1923 race at Belmont Park (NY) is an apt metaphor for the state of the horse racing industry these days.
At Del Mar, the focus has been on the condition of the race track. The hope is spending money on upgrades will lead to a decline in negative publicity. I would argue there are deeper issues to consider, namely greed and inbreeding.
From the Union-Tribune’s pre-opening day coverage:
This year, Del Mar cut its racing schedule by three days with the hopes of giving its new superintendent more time to prepare the track while affording horses a longer rest following the close of Santa Anita’s meet July 4.
“We lose some money, but frankly, it was the right thing to do,” Harper said. “It gave us more time to get ready. It gave the horsemen more time on the track before the races start. We’re breathing a little easier.”
The breath holding will come on opening day and in the subsequent seven weeks as Del Mar tries to overcome the bad memories and negative publicity that came with 17 horse deaths in last year’s summer meeting and another five in the shorter fall season.
Protests from animal rights advocates grew more fervent as the summer season progressed and the deaths mounted, and Harper concluded at the end of the meet, “You look for a smoking gun, and sometimes there just isn’t one. The nature of the sport came to roost on our porch this summer.
Last year’s protesters are planning on being back this year, with two days of protests for the coming weekend and more throughout the season.
…Joe Harper stating that starting the races one week later is for the horses. Well that is absurd. In all reality there will be 36 racing days for the summer meet instead of 39. Tell me, Mr. Harper how is that helping the horses?
At Del Mar, the addition of a fall series of races hasn’t worked out as well as expected, according to a recent KPBS story:
But the fall meet at Del Mar has eroded attendance at the summer meet. David Watson is a board member of the 22nd Agricultural Association which operates the fairgrounds. He said falling attendance at the Del Mar races is a long-term trend.
“You can see that in 2004 the attendance was about 733,000,” he said, pointing to figures in the Del Mar races media guide. “And with the exception of one minor blip, it’s been going down, steadily going down, and in 2016 the attendance was 534,000. Just a steady decrease in attendance since 2004.”
Watson said revenue from the races used to easily cover the annual cost of bond repayments on the grandstands, but not any more. The grandstands were rebuilt in 1991 and recently upgraded. That debt is now about $45 million and the yearly payments are about $3.3 million. Last year the Thoroughbred Club was only able to pay the Race Track Leasing Commission and the District $1.7 million.
While horse racing was once the U.S.’s most popular spectator sport, its customers are dying, and new aficionados are scarce. The hard-drinking, chimney-smoking, and generally misogynist culture built into the stereotypical track attendee just isn’t attractive anymore.
Nowadays for the general public, horse racing starts and ends at the Triple Crown, especially its first leg, since NBC has repackaged the way the Kentucky Derby was presented, focusing on attracting an “event-driven audience” rather than a sports-focused one.
The ubiquity of legal betting at tracks has been undercut by the spread of casinos throughout the U.S. Race tracks are increasingly relying on non-racing events, along with specialty food and beverage promotions to pay their costs.
The sport of kings became an industry in the mid-twentieth century. The financial rewards of breeding became a driving force, more so than winning races. The focus on breeding, formerly about improving the breed from a multi-attribute perspective (speed, stamina and soundness), changed to creating an aesthetically pleasing fast horse with celebrity pedigrees. Two bloodlines (Native Dancer and Seattle Slew) currently dominate the sport.
Horsefund.org has a well-documented history of breeding, and includes this analysis:
Reminiscent of the eugenics movement during the Hitler regime the development of perilously inbred pedigrees fatefully arose. The influx of vulnerable gene pools began predominantly with the immortal Native Dancer, nicknamed the “Gray Ghost” because of his color. Native Dancer’s brilliance includes a record 21 victories in 22 starts, tarnished only by a loss to Dark Star in the 1953 Kentucky Derby. However accomplished his racing career was, it was nonetheless short-lived…
…As a result of commercialization, market forces and greed the entire global Thoroughbred population is now so inundated with the blood of Native Dancer that any counterbalances that would thwart the passage of these vulnerable genes has virtually been absorbed leading to an escalation in the amount of inbreeding currently present in the racing world. As the gene pool shrinks it brings with it a most undesirable trait.
“Like hemophilia in the Russian royal family, Native Dancer’s line has a tragic flaw. Thanks in part to heavily muscled legs and a violent, herky-jerky running style, Native Dancer and his descendants have had trouble with their feet. Injuries have cut short the careers of several of his most famous kin, most notably Barbaro, a great-great-great-grandson who was injured during the Preakness Stakes and was later put to death.”
The racing industry has coped with these genetic weaknesses with drugs, some legal, some not. Thirty-odd juristictions nationwide make for a lack of uniform regulation.
The most common of the legal medications is Lasix, given to counter the effects of Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH) (more commonly referred to as bleeding). In California, third party veterinarians are now required to administer injections to horses, the hope being of preventing cheating–often including mixing in other drugs.
While some think the diuretic impact of Lasix may act as a performance enhancer (dehydration equals weight loss), a larger concern should be its long term effects.
From an excellent Guardian story on the topic:
In 1960, the average start per horse per year was 11.31 – a peak in the record books. In 1975, the year Lasix enjoyed wide introduction into many jurisdictions, the average start per horse was 10.23. In 2013, horses started on average 6.32 times a year – a statistic cited by many to prove that Lasix and other drugs are weakening the breed.
The other widespread concern about drugging racehorses are painkillers. Legal or not, horses with injuries are racing. They can’t feel the pain until… something snaps.
Finally, there are allegations about the widespread use of designer drugs to enhance performance.
From the Paulick Report:
A report titled Stakeholder Input, released November 2016 by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, contains a survey in which the issue of horsemen’s “trust” is addressed.
In response to the statement “Doping with designer drugs is rampant,” 58.1 percent either totally agreed or somewhat agreed. By nearly an identical margin, 57.2 percent of the respondents indicated they either totally or somewhat agreed with the statement “Most people I know cheat.”
It would be my guess that pending federal legislation authorizing the United States Anti-Doping Agency to manage all aspects of horse racing’s drug and medication program has a snowball’s chance in hell given the current mood in Washington DC.
I’ve been to the racetrack a half-dozen or so times in my life. I could never put my finger on what it was about those visits that made me sad.
Now I think I know.
Looking for some action? Check out the Weekly Progressive Calendar, published every Friday in this space, featuring Demonstrations, Rallies, Teach-ins, Meet Ups and other opportunities to get your activism on.
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