Horse racing officially at a crossroads

It was supposed to be one of the most thrilling days of the year at Santa Anita.

Two big races at the historic Southern California track, including one of the top preps for the Kentucky Derby.

Bob Baffert in the house, sending out a pair of undefeated 3-year-olds. But the place was empty Saturday.

After the deaths of nearly two dozen horses in less than three months, Santa Anita has called a halt to racing while officials try to get a handle on this alarming epidemic.

While that’s a commendable move by one of the nation’s premier tracks — and a huge financial hit, to be sure — it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

The entire sport of kings needs to get its house in order to ensure its long-term survival.

Frankly, it’s getting harder and harder to dispute those animal-rights activists who would like nothing better than to shut down horse racing for good.

The tragic deaths at Santa Anita couldn’t have come at a worse time for horse racing, which has made a bit of a comeback after years of being written off as a fading, out-of-touch sport.

Must of the credit goes to a pair of Triple Crown winners: American Pharoah swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont stakes in 2015, ending a 37-year drought, and Justify followed suit last spring. Television ratings have been relatively strong for the major events, proving the sport still has a grip on a large chunk of the viewing audience despite persistent protests from those who find it cruel and inhumane.

Now, just when everyone should be gearing up for the major prep races that lead to the biggest event of the year, the Kentucky Derby, the rash of deaths at Santa Anita — 21 since the season opened the day after Christmas — has cast a dark cloud over the sport.

Activists like Patrick Battuello say that thousands of racing horses die every year in the United States, and the sport has undoubtedly dragged its feet for far too long to institute common-sense changes that would greatly improve the health and safety of its 1,200-pound athletes.

Documents of the annual death toll can be seen on his web-site https://horseracingwrongs.com, which lists 817 horses as killed while racing or training in 2018, plus another 100 that died on track grounds from what were described as non-racing ailments.

That’s merely the tip of a very deadly iceberg, failing to encompass states that deny requests for information or don’t require the reporting of deaths during training. It also misses those that die at private training facilities.

The site states that 2,000 horses are killed while racing or training on U.S. tracks every year.

Activisists wonder why horse racing still exists when the Ringling Bros. circus has gone out of business, Sea World is in decline, and greyhound racing has been voted out in Florida, essentially eliminating that sport in the U.S.

This is a sport that continues to be regulated by a hodge-podge of state-run organizations, with no real oversight at the national level. This is a sport that continues to grapple with the unnecessary drugging of horses, often to mask injuries that should’ve been given more time to heal. This is a sport that has far too many owners who are more concerned about making a quick buck than protecting their animals.

Some maintain that the vast majority of catastrophic racing injuries are preventable, the result of repeated smaller injuries that go undetected or are simply ignored in hopes of getting a horse on the track as soon as possible. It needs far greater changes, it needs to show it really cares about the health of its equine athletes.

Newberry can be reached at pnewberry@ap.org.

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