2019 Haskell Invitational, Monmouth Park’s premiere event,
was witnessed by sparser-than-usual crowd.
By Clocker Vandalay
The battle between animal rights activists and the horse racing industry over whether the sport is inhumane intensified this weekend. If you are keeping score at home, chalk up a major victory to the side of the activists represented by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
The background to this battle: a spate of horse breakdowns at Santa Anita Park in California earlier this year prompted national conversation and strict scrutiny of inadequate maintenance and safety procedures at the track. Several significant (and some irrelevant) actions to improve horse safety were implemented by Santa Anita when the number of deaths passed an indefensible level.
Included in those actions was the banning of a high profile trainer from the track, presumably for violations of its new protocols that resulted in his horses breaking down. The action was stunning because of its apparent absence of due process (Santa Anita offered no public explanation for it and apparently afforded the trainer no appeal rights), and because other tracks like California’s Del Mar and those located in New York adopted the same ban, also without due process.
Nonetheless, these actions were deemed insufficient by PETA. Its position is that all horse racing is inhumane and needs to be stopped.
Its tactics involve pointing out every actual or potential negative outcome at a track, not for the goal of making improvements, but for the goal of pointing out that the sport’s inhumane treatment of horses cannot be cured. PETA encourages all members and supporters to contact their politicians to help further this agenda.
The lack of a cohesive response by the industry to these arguments and tactics gives PETA the upper hand in this war, particularly after this weekend.
After midweek receipt of weekend forecasts for Heat Indexes between 106 and 108 in the Northeast, five of the six horse tracks in the region including historic Saratoga Race Course, cancelled their Saturday race cards. The rationale offered by all tracks was that temperatures would lead to unsafe racing conditions for the horses, and they prioritized horse safety over the profits that would come from their busiest day of the week.
For Saratoga, the pain was greater than other tracks as it required a rescheduling of one of its premier races for three-year-old fillies and risked alienating a large fan base that makes Saratoga a weekend destination that requires planning months ahead and costs lots of money.
Clearly, all tracks were influenced in their decision by Santa Anita’s adversity and a desire to convey a message that they know what to do to ensure horse safety, before activists seized the opportunity to yet again paint the sport as inhumane.
The lone Northeast holdout? Monmouth Park, located on the New Jersey shore, which had scheduled its most heavily attended and thus biggest money-making day of the year for Saturday. Though it acknowledged the oncoming severe heat, it claimed as early as Wednesday that it could conduct safe racing by putting cooling and hydration measures in place that would prevent any horse or human deaths from heat exhaustion.
It also claimed this was a decision informed by consultation with veterinarians (including the State’s), owners, trainers, jockeys and anyone else with an opinion on that matter. A track that routinely runs its meet in the summer, Monmouth no doubt relied on past experience of successfully running races on similarly hot days with no attendant deaths. A 14-race card was scheduled to go forward on Saturday.
On Saturday morning, Phil Murphy, the governor of New Jersey intervened and forced Monmouth to reconsider its decision. Monmouth then announced it would run the first 2 races on the card and re-evaluate after the 2nd race whether it could continue safely racing.
After no horse that ran in those races collapsed or suffered adverse affects from the heat, Monmouth curiously decided to cancel all remaining non-stakes races, and hold the running of the remaining 6 races on the card between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., presumably when temperatures would not be so oppressive.
Track chairman Dennis Drazen, an otherwise well-spoken individual, admitted the governor had called him Saturday but disingenuously insisted the decision as to whether to go forward, modify or cancel racing that day was entirely his to make. He explained that the modified decision was based on ongoing consultation with appropriate professionals and was ultimately based on concern for the horses.
It does not take a political science major to see through Drazen’s bogus explanations and motivations.
Governor Murphy had no reason to call a private business like Monmouth to inquire into its daily operations. If there were concerns about Monmouth’s operation, New Jersey has regulatory standards and a horse racing Commission to make those inquiries and enforce those standards.
But Governor Murphy signed a bill in February to provide Monmouth with over $100 million dollars in tax subsidies over the next five years. If a horse died at Monmouth on Saturday, political opponents would effectively put that horse’s blood on Murphy’s hands because he used taxpayer dollars to support an inhumane organization.
And what group was suggesting there would be blood on hands of people at Monmouth if a horse died? PETA. Earlier in the week, PETA senior vice president Kathy Guillermo called for criminal prosecution of any Monmouth officials if even one horse died on Saturday.
Governor Murphy’s office likely received multiple PETA-inspired calls and connected the dots between Monmouth officials and politicians who subsidize Monmouth.
Thus, the decision to modify the races was not Drazen’s sole decision to make. It was done at the Governor’s insistence or because of Drazen’s perceived duty to mollify Murphy after the Governor expressed his concern over the political blowback if a horse died. (When asked if he was involved in the decision, the Governor’s office offered no comment)
Drazen’s final decision was also not about horse safety because nothing happened between the Wednesday decision to race and the end of the second race on Saturday to suggest that horses were in danger in a way to challenge Monmouth’s belief that it could race safely. The Heat Index did not rise higher than expected. Protocols were effective because no horse was allowed to run that manifested signs of heat exhaustion (one who did was scratched from the first race). No horse died on the track while or after running.
Drazen even stated that vets (including, again, the State’s), jockeys and trainers all told him that nothing had happened to challenge their opinion that it was safe to continue running.
Yet, not one television or newspaper reporter did their best Tom-Cruise-cross-examination- of- Jack-Nicholson-in-a-Few- Good-Men-imitation and asked Drazen why, if nothing had changed since the initial decision to race was made, he suddenly believed horse safety was an issue?
Drazen’s refusal to stand up for his original decision means he either never believed in its rationale and instead was motivated by the need to race and make money, or he believed in it and was forced to abandon it by political pressure. Either way, the last thing Saturday’s actions reinforced is that Monmouth can make and execute well-grounded standards about horse safety.
The re-scheduled racing was disastrous for Monmouth. According to my sources, fans left the track in droves after being told they had to sit for 5 hours until the next race. Trainers scratched horses that were no longer scheduled to run at the times for which they had been prepared, so that 3 and 4 horse fields dominated the 6 remaining stakes races, an anathema to gamblers.
Though the races proved to be exciting, there was no national exposure because NBC, who had convinced Monmouth to reschedule its big weekend in the first instance so it could cover its major race, could cover racing there only between 5 and 6 p.m.
It was thus lose/lose for Monmouth. Business was clearly hurt and fans who bought tickets were alienated. More significantly, Drazin was shown, at best, to be incompetent in understanding political realities that come with subsidy grants from his Governor or what was really at risk with horse safety. At worst, he was shown by PETA to be a money-motivated industry executive who lies about his and his track’s concern for horse safety.
It is amazing that, in a country where millions of cows and pigs are slaughtered annually for food, racing cannot come up with an effective message that running animals who are bred for that purpose is humane. It must do that if it is to ever effectively isolate PETA.
But it also must come up with universal safety standards, like what is an unacceptable heat index that should cause racing to be cancelled. And its leaders have to quit shooting themselves in both feet like Monmouth’s did this weekend.
Unless and until that happens, PETA will never have to worry about countering anything the industry does. The countdown to racing’s extinction in many jurisdictions will have begun.
Clocker Vandalay is a pseudonym for a Tampa Bay resident with close ties to the horse racing industry.