Monday, July 23, 2018

What Does PETA Really Want From Horse Racing?

“They’re fanatics and extremists who want to ban horse racing. You have to remember that.” This has been a common insider response to the recent campaign on Thoroughbred racing by the People for thepetalogo Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

In what is now simply known as “the video,” PETA compiled and released selected scenes from an undercover investigation of the Steve Asmussen barn. The heavily edited video was a powerful blow to racing not because it showed anything illegal. As of this writing investigators have determined that no laws or rules were broken.

But the video succeeded in portraying the status quo of Thoroughbred care including the widespread administration of “therapeutic” drugs and procedures. Of the anti-bleeding drug Lasix, or furosemide, veterinarian Dr. James Hunt Jr. nonchalantly remarks that, “They basically all run on it. It makes them lighter.”

“If rules aren’t being broken then we need different rules,” noted one Thoroughbred breeder after watching.

Those with preconceived notions about horse racing found ample confirmation in the video. Those without preconceived notions now have them.

The video sparked clarion calls for change across racing. Why? It is because we understand that the topic of animal welfare resonates like never before with the average law-abiding citizen who dutifully totes recycling to the curb every week, buys cage-free eggs, and likes grilled cheeseburgers. People believe they can and should try to make a difference and are thinking carefully about the lifestyle choices they make. And more and more are starting to think about that cheeseburger.

Thoroughbred racing is many things. On its grandest days at its finest venues it is spectacle steeped in tradition. On most days it is a fascinating and compelling gambling game. And everyday it is animal racing.

When you hear horse racing described as an anachronism, this is code for “It’s animal racing.”

In the West, and especially in America, prevailing attitudes toward animals and our relationships with them have changed and continue to evolve. Once the exclusive domain of iconoclasts and intellectuals, animal welfare is now squarely mainstream. But horse racing remains much the same as it was a hundred years ago.

Somewhere buried inside the 2011 McKinsey “state of the industry” report for The Jockey Club is a page or two acknowledging these rapidly changing attitudes. This did not, however, “make the cut” as a major issue facing the racing industry.

It is self-evident that Thoroughbred racing must find a way to not only exist but prosper in societies unwilling to tolerate animal cruelty and exploitation in any form.

Thoroughbred racing is not a dying pursuit existing at the margins of society, the way one might describe dog racing. While you might remember dog racing, you might not remember how popular it once was. Dog racing, horse racing’s pari-mutuel cousin, is now banned in thirty-nine states, primarily due to animal welfare concerns. In the end, the fact that the majority of dogs were well taken care of didn’t matter.

In Australia, jump racing, inherently more dangerous than flat racing, faces increasingly intense public pressure. Calls for banning the dwindling sport have an air of inevitability to them.

We learned that twenty-million Americans watched California Chrome bid for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. The worst possible way to interpret that statistic is to offer it up as a public stamp of approval for horse racing.

How have we arrived at this point?

The Brown DogThe animal rights movement, the more radical offspring of the animal welfare movement, is only decades old. As social movements go, it’s still an infant. But organized concern for animal welfare, predominantly in England and America, predated discussion of animal rights by more than a hundred years. Its legacy is all around us in the form of familiar organizations like the ASPCA, RSPCA, and national and local humane societies.

You may find it ironic, especially if you live in New York City, that the animal which received considerable attention in the early days of this nineteenth century movement was the horse, specifically the carriage horse.

The story of animal advocacy took a perverse turn soon after the NazisADOLF-HITLER came to power in Germany. In the 1930s the murderous Nazi regime enacted the most comprehensive animal welfare legislation the world had ever seen. Adolph Hitler proclaimed that “Hunting and horse racing are the last remnants of a dead feudal world.”

It is a testament of sorts to the animal advocacy movement that it has managed to forge ahead without being linked to this historical absurdity.

Peter SingerDecades later in 1975 Australian philosopher Peter Singer wrote the monumentally influential Animal Liberation. It is widely accepted that this book sparked the modern animal rights movement. Indeed, PETA considers this book a manifesto of sorts. In Animal Liberation Singer denounces speciesism and declares the moral status of humans and animals to be equivalent because, simply, suffering is suffering.

In 1983 American philosopher Tom Regan contributed The Case for Animal Rights to the burgeoning canon of animal advocacy literature. Regan argued that animals, like humans, are experiencing-subjects-of-a-life (ESOAL) and therefore have intrinsic value and rights. For Regan, animals do not just have life, they have “a life” and experience themselves as subjects of that life. Animals can expect, anticipate, prefer, and have a sense of past and future. They use their lives to accomplish goals.

Peter Singer and Tom Regan opened a floodgate of philosophical inquiry into the nature of animals that continues unabated. Regan recently observed, “Philosophers have written more on the topic [animal rights] in the past thirty years than our predecessors had written in the previous three thousand.”

Regan’s point is well-taken but should not obscure the fact that philosophers and spiritual sages of antiquity, from Aristotle to Zoroaster, have sought truths about human responsibility towards other sentient beings.

Aristotle-RaphaelAristotle, in particular, writes about an important yet often overlooked (by contemporary animal advocates) concept — the notion of a telos. For Aristotle, a telos is understood to be the essential interest of each kind of animal — the set of functions that define its essence. The “dogness” of a dog or the “horseness” of a horse is its telos. A telos is not at all the same as instinct. It is something more vital, something that gives the animal purpose.

While your dog might keep your kitchen floor crumb-free and protect the household from threats, both real and imaginary, that is not her telos. Rather, when she triumphantly returns a thrown ball and awaits praise, perhaps there is a bit more going on than mere play. To chase and retrieve surely seems a job that many breeds of dogs live to do. It is in their blood and marrow. This seems closer to that essential thing she must be allowed to do.

Who could dispute that the telos of the Thoroughbred is “to run”? Some might even go further and suggest it is “to race.”

We don’t really need to know what the telos of a crate-confined calf is to know that his telos has been denied. The same is true for endangered Asiatic black bears held in “crush cages” to harvest gall bladder bile for use in traditional Eastern medicine. And despite universal opposition, these practices continue.

“There's always an uncertainty that I see in the faces of some of these animals [Thoroughbred horses] because they never know where they're going to be next,” claims Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President of PETA. The life of an average Thoroughbred, especially at the lower claiming levels, is clearly unsettled and transient. But can that cause a horse to experience uncertainty or anxiety?

Racing followers routinely infuse horses with qualities and emotions typically reserved for humans. Courage, perseverance, pride, intelligence, tenacity, all quickly come to mind. But what about uncertainty, fear, even terror? The other side of the emotional coin is generally ignored. But not by animal advocates.

Even a cursory survey of the language used by turf writers and racing fans would lead you to believe that they fully consider Thoroughbreds to be not just animals but ESOAL. These are animals that have names, personality quirks, and a carefully documented family tree that dates back further than yours or mine.

How then to explain the absent rules and policies and mistreatment cases that we are all too familiar with?

PETA, founded in 1980, did not start the animal advocacy movement and does not currently define it. Some will even say that PETA’s tactics give the movement a bad name. But PETA is highly visible, well-funded, and committed to its cause.

Decades of activism against using animals for biomedical experimentation, product testing, and factory farming, just to name a few issues, have resulted in repeated success stories and milestones for the organization.

PETA succeeds because they know that the story, once confirmed as true, is bigger than the means by which it was obtained. The public will see to that.

Alerted by news reports and whistleblowers, since 2008 PETA has set its sights on welfare issues and abuses in Thoroughbred racing. The list of issues is long and familiar to you — drug reform, fatalities and injuries, horse slaughter, after care and retirement, under tack shows, whipping — and PETA has pushed racing to act in some of these areas.

But, as anyone who follows racing knows, fundamental change is rare and protracted. “It has been profoundly disappointing to see how slow change has been,” admits PETA’s Kathy Guillermo. And with that maybe we are better able to place the motivation underlying the recent Asmussen undercover investigation within a larger context.

“When we have urged the public to boycott racing and have said racing must end, it was to spur the industry to make changes,” she clarifies.

What does PETA really want from horse racing? They want racing to be as safe and ethical as possible. They want what you want. The difference is they lack your patience and are more than willing to operate “outside the system.”

“We never really intended to take on racing or any equine sport,” explains Guillermo. “But it was so obvious to us that some simple changes could eliminate or at least greatly reduce the number of injuries and fatalities in racing.”

PETA’s campaign against racing is not a campaign designed to abolish the sport. Clearly certain elements of the campaign are designed to maximize attention and provoke the industry to initiate reforms. And perhaps those elements are working as planned.

There is a PETA-sized hole in Thoroughbred racing and authorities would be wise to formally collaborate with the advocacy group on a spectrum of reforms — reforms that reflect the implicit assumption that a Thoroughbred is an ESOAL with a telos — whether or not you buy into either philosophical construct.

But when the recurrent question is again asked of racing, “Who speaks for the horses,” the answer cannot be PETA. The answer must be “We do.”

Three Questions with Kathy Guillermo of PETA

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals executive Kathy Guillermo shares her perspective on PETA's involvement with Thoroughbred racing. Guillermo's answers represent her own views and not necessarily ours.

There are those in horse racing who are quick to dismiss PETA as extremists with an abolitionist agenda. They feel that working with PETA to improve horse racing incrementally does not make sense. How do you respond to this?

Since PETA began actively campaigning against horse racing abuses in 2008 everything we have done has been with one goal in mind: reforming racing to make it less cruel. It was clear to us — as it is to many in the racing industry that a few bad practices are harming and killing horses. We believed that we could put some pressure on the industry to make some changes that would decrease the suffering and the death toll. When we have urged the public to boycott racing and have said racing as it is done now must end, it was to spur the industry to make changes.
It has been profoundly disappointing to see how slow change has been. I was hopeful when the 2011 McKinsey Report was released that we would see serious drug reform, as well as action to prevent the transport of horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. The McKinsey Report made it clear that younger people are not coming to the track in large part because of the perception that racing is cruel — a perception that animal rights groups are contributing to. I thought: At last! Now the racing industry will see that they need to clean up the abuse so that the animal rights people won’t have anything to report. How wrong I was. Instead, the response was largely to raise the profile of racing, to create television programs, increase advertising and improve the public perception of racing. But the image isn’t the problem. The reality is the problem. In my view, racing can never be glamorized without eliminating the drugs, breakdowns, and slaughter. I know the Jockey Club has tried to push through their drug reform, which doesn’t really go far enough, but the lukewarm response by most racing states has been a terrible mistake.
We believe the Asmussen investigation created a tipping point, but much cruelty had already been exposed:
We documented in 2009 the Thoroughbred slaughter industry in Japan and looked at where Charismatic and War Emblem are.
We then expanded our investigations:
2011: The racing of very young horses in two-year-old auctions. This contains some of the most shocking breakdown video I’ve ever seen.
2012: The transport of horses from the U.S. to Canada for slaughter.
And of course the recent investigation of Asmussen.
Throughout these last few years, we have attempted to work with industry to make improvements. Most of the changes the industry implemented were welcome but they did not deal with the biggest problems, including the misuse of therapeutic drugs. The one substantial success we had up to the point of the Asmussen investigation was on the retirement program, which we proposed to the Jockey Club in 2011, and a version of which was implemented as the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance in 2012. Though any role PETA played has been expunged from, or more accurately was never included in, the official record. But when I sat in Jim Gagliano’s office at the Jockey Club headquarters and saw the copy of our retirement proposal that had been reviewed and marked up by industry representatives, we knew that, after a decade of talking about retirement, the industry was finally really doing something.
But the auction companies ignored our suggestions for small changes that would be simple and effective, and would help prevent the breakdowns of young horses — even though the Stronach Group had already paved the way by enacting the same rules we proposed, and for the same reasons, at their own juvenile auction.
I think the industry has been arrogant and foolish for refusing to work with PETA or at least with those in the industry who agree with PETA on the need for change. They have said, effectively, we would rather carry on drugging and killing horses than even discuss how we might improve things because we don’t want to acknowledge that PETA might be right on some of these things. The irony is, the information we have comes from people in racing. We sought, and continue to seek, expert guidance in all these areas. And tragically, the horses are the ones who suffer for this arrogance, and ultimately, so does racing itself.
By contrast, I went to Jeff Gural at Meadowlands on whipping and drugging in the harness industry and he put out a news release stating that he was in discussions with PETA. Then he took almost immediate action to clean up drugs and whipping cruelty at his tracks. Consequently PETA has not targeted harness racing. Discussions and cooperation with PETA  was followed by real action that led to effective change. That’s what we’re looking for.
We have also been encouraged by our meeting with the Stronach Group on April 7 this year, during which we discussed our suggestions for reform, and we hope to continue this dialogue.

PETA is opposed to using animals for entertainment. Does this opposition include all equine sports? Has PETA targeted Thoroughbred racing specifically due to perceived excessive unethical practices in comparison to other equine sports?
We never really intended to take on racing or any equine sport, as we focus primarily on issues in which millions or billions of animals are used, such as the use of animals for food, clothing and experimentation. But it was so obvious to us that some simple changes could eliminate or at least greatly reduce the number of injuries and fatalities in racing. We felt we had to try. We thought we could make a difference for the horses. I still hope we can.
I had my own horses and showed hunter jumpers for other owners many years ago and played a little arena polo. I saw plenty of mistreatment, though not to the extent I’ve seen in racing. Racing is also regulated by the states, the public bets millions of dollars, and it’s visible in a way other equine sports aren’t; perhaps for these reasons, we get many, many whistleblower calls on racing and we feel an obligation to respond to these and do what we can.

There is an old saying, “You can’t legislate morality.” But do you believe, through new practices and regulations, that racing can be considered ethical, even though accidents, injuries, and even fatalities are inevitable?
There is no question that racing can become less unethical. And it could be done in just a few months if everyone in the industry would get on the same page and act. I’ve seen too much ugliness to think it will ever be ethical, but I urge everyone in racing to work toward reform that will mean drugging and breakdowns are rare and not accepted everyday occurrences. When PETA sees real change, and meaningful results from those changes, we will back off our campaign. But as long as 24 horses are dying on tracks every week, we’re not going away.
We are putting together our formal suggestions, based on the opinions of racing and veterinary experts, for reforms we believe will eliminate the worst of the suffering. I invite the industry to meet with us, review our suggestions, provide feedback, and begin to implement change that will save horses lives — and very likely racing itself.


Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President of Laboratory Investigations for PETA, is responsible for uncovering abuses in laboratories, working with whistleblowers to expose violations of animal protection laws, seeking prosecution of animal abusers by federal and state agencies, and replacing animals in laboratories with modern, non-animal methods of experimentation.

Release the Data

It's time. Well, in truth it's overdue, but better late than never. Time for what? It's time to release the data -- the historical data that represents the results of Thoroughbred horse races. For argument's sake, let's say data that is at least six months old. You see, these data are not readily available to the general public, like box scores in baseball. Actually, that's not quite true. Historical racing data can be purchased. But that's different. It's time to give it all away. As far back in time as is viable.

Don't fret. I'm not in any way suggesting that live past performances be made available free of charge. Not that I couldn't suggest that, but such a fanciful notion would be quickly dismissed. The suppliers of past performance data for handicapping -- our friends at America's Turf Authority and several others -- would have a bit of an issue with that. Even the most rudimentary past performance data, as long as it was free, would quickly eat into their bottom line.

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Pondering the Allure of Saratoga

Horse racing fans are always up for a good debate over the relative merits of the "big three" racing meets... Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar, that sacred triumvirate of quality, competitive racing and big crowds. It's kind of a false debate though since each of the three venues presents a unique racing experience unto itself. Not that I'm looking to resurrect that debate here mind you. This is all about Saratoga. Any subsequent comparisons to the Keeneland and Del Mar meets are for illustrative purposes only.

IMG_0401To put it bluntly, if you're into horse racing but have yet to visit Saratoga Race Course, what are you waiting for? This year would be a great time to make your debut visit too, what with the racetrack celebrating its 150th anniversary and all. Stop and think about 150 years ago. In 1863 Saratoga racegoers would have been chatting up the just-concluded Battle of Gettysburg while standing in line for a Ulysses S. Grant bobblehead.

So what's the big deal with horse racing at Saratoga anyway? What makes it so special?

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The Triple Crown Pick 3: Not Particularly Silly?

An idea for a new type of Kentucky Derby wager popped into my head and I can't decide if it's very silly, kind of silly, not particularly silly, or not silly at all. I'm tenuously leaning towards "not particularly silly". The idea is definitely outside the box. Actually it's not even near the box. It's in the next town over, inside an old abandoned bus down by the river. Of course, with government backing I could make this wager idea very silly.

Oh bloody hell get on with it will you? Fine, I will. Submitted for your approval (or derision), the Triple Crown Pick 3.

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