$9 million is on the line for those competing in America's richest horse race this year in Hallandale Beach. Launched in South Florida in 2017, the Pegasus World Cup attracts throngs of thoroughbred racing fans to assemble for a weekend of booze, bets and one of the biggest purses in the game. Gulfstream Park calls to those interested in gambling on a winning steed, donning the fluttery hats of the upper class; as well as those who attend to participate in the steady buzz of excitement sure to thicken the air of any high-profile racing atmosphere.
This year's competition follows a midterm election vote to outlaw greyhound racing in November, with 69% of Floridians approving the ban. It begs to question: should we only be dismantling greyhound racing and not looking at its equine counterpart? And why has one been outlawed but not the other?
"There isn't a lot of difference [between the two] when you come down to it," says PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo. "In the end, we're taking animals and we're making them race around a track and encouraging people to bet on the outcome." Guillermo has a background in the industry herself; as an adolescent, she competed on the racing circuit until she came to the realization that what she was participating in was "inhumane."
The reformed rider-turned-activist thinks that greyhound racing was simpler to outlaw because Florida was following in the footsteps of other states who had already set a precedent. Of course, financial motivation is another factor. "There were not many people in Florida or anywhere in the United States who went to a greyhound racing track. So it was much easier to do away with that because there were not a lot of lobbyists on behalf of the greyhound industry; it was so small and already so marginalized."
Both the sheer enormity of the industry and its economic impact are considerable factors that set horse racing apart. In 2014 alone, all forty countries in the world participating in horse racing produced a combined betting turnover of 95 billion euros, or $107 billion. In the U.S., where 38 states have legalized the sport, the annual economic impact of the equine industry is measured at $122 billion, according to a 2017 study published by the American Horse Council (AHC). And in the state of Florida, the yearly economic contribution hits roughly $6.8 billion.
Yet another set of numbers tells a different side to the story. 24 horses on average die every week on racing tracks across America, according to a 2012 New York Times investigation published with PETA. That means approximately 1,248 horses lose their lives each year. Industry experts — like Cindy Gendrin at the Humane Society — admit it's difficult to explicitly identify the reasons for the high figure, but points to one likely culprit: doping.
Project Manager for the Humane Society's Animal Response Care and Sanctuary, Gendrin explains that the drugging of horses in competitions, and the lack of federal regulations around it, are where abuse happens most. "Drugs are used to mask pain in horse races. Horses are being forced to run while they're still in pain. And then they are given performance-enhancing drugs that artificially elevate a horse's ability. That creates unfair competition, not only harming the horses and the jockeys but deceives people that go to the races. And that gives the sport a bad name."
Others come at the conversation from an alternate angle. A 29-year-old avid thoroughbred racing fan from Orlando preparing to travel down to Hallandale for the Pegasus World Cup, Michael Pellerin believes that the issues with horse maltreatment lie in races with smaller purses. "These horses in high-profile races are an investment. They cost billions of dollars. Where I do think abuse might happen is these smaller tracks where the horses are a couple thousand dollars and these owners are running them non-stop to make some type of return."
The racing enthusiast concludes that this logic also applies to Florida's track record with high levels of abuse in greyhound racing. "Greyhounds are more considered a tiny asset that owners exploit to get a return. I believe the majority of greyhound tracks in Florida are not the primary source of revenue for those tracks — they're used as a legal excuse to run casinos and poker rooms, and the greyhound tracks are secondary. I think horses are much better-taken care of as far as legislative, governing bodies that run what happens on the track."
Pellerin's perspective is pretty standard for fans of the sport. And there are many. Around since 1665, horse racing dates back to over a century before the American Revolution. And so does the saga of abuse for the estimated 870,000 horses competing or being trained to meet the track every year.
Florida's Horseman Benevolent and Protection Association (FHBPA) is an advocacy group of 5,000 racers and thoroughbred breeders who work to lobby on behalf of racetracks and elected officials that are "horse-racing friendly." FHBPA Director Glen Berman says that greyhound racing can't even be compared to horse racing. "Horses have been the backbone of our country and the world for hundreds of years. Dogs are typically pets. Horses are our livestock. So it's really comparing apples and oranges."
Berman says the focus of the issue should be the jobs and economy that horse racing generates in Florida, a number that climbed 47% since the last study was conducted over a decade ago, according to a 2018 report by the American Horse Council (AHC).
Broward local Jennifer Pierce echoes that sentiment. She's been working within the broader industry for 25 years. Her history includes lobbying for Gulfstream Park — home to the Pegasus World Cup — and "instant racing" tracks. Nowadays, Pierce acts as a consultant for Florida pari-mutuel permit holders.
Pierce couldn't comment on the sport's parallelism to greyhound racing but stressed the economic contributions we see on a local level in Broward County. "Gulfstream attracts a much larger amount of interest than other racetracks, which is part of what makes it so successful. Because of the enormous amount of money wagered down here, there's more money to give out for prize money. So, therefore, it attracts the better horses and the better the horses, the more interest you have
"So not only do you have the economic impact from the people that are doing the business of racing, but you have Gulfstream itself as a tourist destination... These are multimillion-dollar animals with multimillion-dollar breeding potential. Any horse that goes in this race is like the best of the best. And they have an entourage to match it."
One of these broader industry positions is filled by Brandon Mills, a manager of thoroughbred horse training stable, Palm Beach Downs. Mills grew up around horses — he raced as a child and says both of his parents are in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. The way he sees it, the community contributions racing offers are unmatched. "We have 200 thoroughbred horses that race through the United States and have a winter home here in Delray. With those horses comes a lot of people. So it's stimulating the gas stations or grocery stores, the local shopping, the job market as well. You know, a lot of local people get jobs when the horses come back for the season."
While economic significance on both a local, state and national level shouldn't be ignored, what can be done about the dark side of a sport with a documented track record for animal maltreatment?
It spirals beyond racing's depraved history with slaughter, where efforts to rehome retired racehorses have improved substantially. Although the national industry's made headway in thoroughbred aftercare in recent years, there's more to be done.
Consider the lasting damage drugging can do to horses, and how it manages to remain ingrained in the practice to optimize racetrack performance. Diehard fans and participants in the sport stand behind how horse racing's regulations make it different from the doping issues that have historically plagued greyhound racing. But if each state has its own jurisdiction that decides the rules surrounding testing and illegal dosages of drugs, then who retains oversight and accountability when racehorses travel within the U.S. to alternate state competitions?
Questions like these have proven themselves troublesome to directly address for those whose very livelihood stems from racing.
"I know that we are the most heavily tested industry sports industry there is and the University of Florida has a dedicated lab for this purpose," says FHBPA's Berman. "And typically the only medications that are detected, when they are detected — and it's it's very uncommon that they are but when they are — it's usually therapeutic drugs that just happened to be over a threshold level that the industry has determined shouldn't be over this level with a medication," .
"It could be allergy medicines, it could be anything, any kind of therapeutic medication. Horses do not receive medicine on race day, other than one specific drug called Lasix. It's a diuretic that humans take and they give it to horses also to keep them from bleeding."
Lasix, as mentioned by Berman, is not just utilized to prevent bleeding (which is a genetic trait for racehorses). It's widely used to enhance performance. The drug vastly eliminates an abundance of urine, decreasing hydrostatic pressure in the horse's body that has the potential to cause lungs to burst. This results in the horse dropping 20 to 30 pounds.
Dangers exist for racetrack horses taking Lasix, including dehydration and increased susceptibility to muscle failure. Back in 2014, ProPublica also investigated racing's long history with drugging, bringing attention to the "speculation that Lasix can cause the bones of horses to become more brittle. And it is generally accepted that horses today run less often than in the past because the dehydration and weight loss caused by Lasix is quite taxing."
Even so, race day drugs are accepted as a training standard. Lab tests for doping weren't even introduced until the 1930s, used at the time only to check for morphine, heroin, and strychnine. The move to rid the industry of performance-optimizing medication has been a slow hike up a taboo path.
Florida has no racing commission (making it the only state without one) and instead leaves the responsibility to regulate the practice to Florida's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. The agency has a history of looking the other way when it comes to enforcing doping violations. In May of 2017, upwards of a hundred medication violations were dismissed, because the division reportedly failed to comply with state law in its methods to collect and process horses' post-race blood samples.
Having acknowledged there is a serious problem with racehorse doping, some are actively advocating a solution, with the objective to help make the competition safer for the animals involved. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is reportedly working with the thoroughbred industry to promote a federal bill: The Horse Racing Integrity Act. Introduced to the 115th Congress in 2017-2018, the legislative proposal establishes the Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority. HSUS Campaign Manager Valerie Pringle says the biggest issue with doping is that there is currently no federal agency to oversee that all 38 states are adhering to the regulations.
"Something to know about racing is, it's not like Major League Baseball that has a commissioner. So when the doping scandal hit Major League Baseball, they had a commissioner who could say, 'Okay, all teams, this is the deal. You can do this, you can't do this. And if you're caught, this is the punishment.''' With racing legal in 38 states and each state's individual commission in charge of making decisions on which drugs are allowed and what the punishments are, the problem is a lack of oversight; especially when it comes to racehorses traveling across the country for competitions.
The FHBPA representative doesn't agree. "If they took it away and gave it to the federal government for regulation, or any federal agency, what would they be doing right now, with the government shutdown? There'd be no testing," he says, adding jobs in the state lab, based out of the University of Florida, would be lost. "So the federal government — I don't think it's a good idea. I think they would do a worse job than the individual state labs are doing."
Greyhound racing will be phased out by 2021, but its equine counterpart doesn't look to be going anywhere. What could change, however, is the sport's reliance on race day drugs. Your move, Congress.
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