By Naomi Serviss / New York City
A dozen horses have died at Louisville, Kentucky’s Churchill Downs since April 12. “What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” said Churchill Downs’s CEO Bill Carstanjen in a statement.
Upstate New York’s Saratoga Springs racetrack (which doesn’t open until the middle of July) has already recorded two deaths, according to Horseracing Wrongs, a nonprofit organization founded in 2013 that is determined to end horse racing. It collects and posts horse death data. The group confirmed 901 deaths last year.
Founder and president Patrick Battuello told The Insider:
“From breeding for speed, to employing adolescent bodies, to the incessant grinding—not to mention commodification—of those bodies, to forcing them to run at an unnatural rate (breakneck), in an unnatural way (in close quarters, among an anxious, artificial herd), and through unnatural means (perched, whip-wielding humans), horseracing guarantees a certain level of killing.”
Racehorse Ami’s Curlin was euthanized on June 10. He had just turned two years old and was being prepared at Saratoga for his debut. His most recent workout had been on May 23. Imagine how painful racing at top speed with bad feet must have been for Ami’s Curlin.
It gets worse. Two other horses were also euthanized on the June 10th weekend. Both Mashnee Girl (Saturday) and Excursionniste (Sunday) suffered catastrophic leg injuries at Belmont Park. They had the same trainer.
The Stakes was the 155th running, and 112th time, held at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. Nicknamed The Test of Champions, the Stakes is typically held on the first or second Saturday in June, three weeks after the Preakness Stakes and five weeks after the Kentucky Derby.
One sliver of good news: the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes ended with a win for thoroughbred Arcangelo and trainer Jena Antonucci, the first woman to train a winner of the Triple Crown in its more than century-old history.
The race covers a full lap of Belmont Park, with its long homestretch and sweeping turns. The Test of Champions is so named because nearly every American champion in racing history has competed there.
For those not enamored of today’s New! Improved! Horse racing actual reality! there are gentler times to recall. Maybe you remember (or have read about) the 1973 Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown winner Secretariat, who holds the track record of 2:24.
The movie was good, too!
Why do senseless equine deaths repeat every racing season??
Drugs and overtraining are culprits. Love of money, another. Bottom line: it’s a business.
But horse racing’s cloudy reputation is being further muddied by the hard facts: too many animals are dying for a man-made pastime.
A sampling of detected drugs in horses include:
Cocaine, cobra venom, blood doping agents, cancer drugs, Viagra, corticosteroid injections and anti-inflammatories.
Overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, the Authority was created to establish anti-doping rules and meaningful violation consequences.
Under the Authority’s regulations for handling drug policy violations, the public will be informed within weeks of the names of the horse and trainer and the drug involved.
A dire prediction by some: Belmont Park will soon become the deadliest racetrack in the country. Why, you may ask? Because New York State legislators approved a $455 million loan to rebuild the 118-year-old track.
To whose benefit?
Follow the money.
I understand the thrill of pony wagers.
My divorced father (Alex) bet plenty when he lived alone in East Greenwich, R.I., a well-to-do suburb of Providence.
Alex’s bleak apartment was down a musty alleyway with bad ventilation. The weathered front door revealed a dismal two-room apartment off the main drag. The kind of hovel where you’d wear waterproof shoes in the shower.
In 1976, I was a features reporter for the Providence Journal and visited him.
A frugal former Navy man and a dedicated gambler, Alex took me (and his even-then ancient-looking pal Cappy) to the close-by Cranston racetrack. It wasn’t a spiffy place but offered all the sport’s trappings.
Queues in front of betting windows competed with tinny-amped speaker announcements. Groans when a favored steed was scratched. Burnt coffee smells and loser’s sweat washed over disappointed faces. A top-notch people-watching spread.
Alex bet on whims and superstitions. He boasted of an insider’s tip.
“Remember names of horses that take a dump,” he confided, chewing roasted, salted peanuts from a noisy cellophane bag.
The horses near the stables seemed well taken care of. We got close to them. Almost touching distance. People were cheerful and friendly. I fell in love with every horse I spotted.
It was a small time-y, run-down track befitting an ancient-looking (but probably only in his 60s), related-by-DNA father.
When dog racing was still legal, he’d bet on that. He bought lottery tickets like there was no tomorrow, and gifted me with a six-piece set of steak knives filched at Ponderosa Steakhouses. My dowry, says my husband.
As a kid I devoured books like the lifeline they became. Black Beauty and National Velvet were read over and over. And the movies with Elizabeth Taylor—a kid with an adult woman’s face–captivated me. In glorious freedom, those obviously well-cared-for equines roamed pastures freely, racing on occasion.
A few years ago, Lew (husband) and I attended a wedding held at the Saratoga Springs racetrack in upstate New York. It’s a quaint, moneyed town with trendy shops and restaurants catering to a gambling crowd. A merry-go-round in the park, another indication of the town’s bent.
Reminded folks why they were in this hamlet.
The wedding ceremony was held in a lovely garden. The reception in the Jockey Hall of Fame. It was opulent and surreal. Guests were free to wander and admire the statuary and portraits. Jockey uniforms decorated the walls.
It was dreamy and beautiful.
Almost as odd as being at a racetrack with my bio-dad, watching him smoke his offensive pipe and make pronouncements of winners.
According to Horseracing Wrong, since 2009, 614 horses have perished at Belmont Park—an average of almost 45 deaths a year. At all New York tracks combined, the toll averages over 125 annually. Across the country, about six racehorses die every day and all of this, I remind, is for nothing more than $2 bets.
Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including BroadwayWorld.com