Lately, I have been seeing the racing industry being vilified in the media. And many people, with no first hand knowledge, of racing, have read these articles, looked at the injury statistics, and drawn conclusions from this that are far from the truth. I would like to address some of these conclusions with some facts and figures from my own personal experience.
I would like to tell you a little about myself before I begin. I have worked on the track since 1976, mostly with thoroughbreds, but also, to a lesser degree, with quarter horses and a small amount of Arabs. I have hot walked, groomed, galloped, but mostly ponied during my time on the track. I have never owned a thoroughbred. My pony horses have all been stock horse types- quarter horses, appaloosas, paints, and lately a couple of Percheron crosses. I have owned 12 pony horses over the course of my career. I did have to sell one horse who just didn't make it as a pony, but the rest I have kept until they passed away, or, after retirement,(usually at around 20 years old), gave them to friends with small children. And if my friends had not treated "my boys" well, I would have brought them back home and found another spot for them. I still have one of my retirees who is 29 this year. I consider my pony horses to be part of my family. So I would say I am typical of the people who come to this site in terms of feelings for my horses.
One of the charges brought against the racetracks is that the number of injuries (some of them life-ending) are too high. This is absolutely true. Injuries are a major problem in the industry. This is a concern to everyone on the track. And here are some of the things being done to address the problem:
1. Horses are routinely vet checked on the day of the race. The horse must pass a soundness test in front of the Racing Commission's veterinarians on that morning. The vets will scratch any horse that does not meet their criteria for soundness.
2. A Racing Commission vet is in the paddock during the races, and another is out on the track where the horses warm up before the race. Any horse that they feel does not look sound is scratched. The jockeys can also take their horse before the vet and request that the horse be scratched if the jockey does not feel the horse is sound.
3. Young horses are routinely checked to see if their knees have closed. (finished growing.) "Open knees" are one reason young horses are prone to injury.
4. The Jockey Club started an equine injury data base. Launched in 2008, this is a national database designed to track all racetrack injuries and outcomes, "in order to serve as a data source for research directed at improving safety and preventing injuries."
5. The Jockey Club also started the Thoroughbred Safety Committee, which addresses issues such as allowable medication and track surfaces- both of which are contributing factors in injuries. While being limited in its ability to mandate in the area or equine health and safety, it has proven to be a successful lobby group, getting many beneficial changes in the industry.
6.The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation has established a Welfare and Safety Summit which is dedicated to researching all issues relating to injury, including education for trainers and caretakers, track surfaces, shoes and shoeing, racetrack management, and veterinary services. This group is also looking into ways to find homes for retired thoroughbreds.
These are just a few of the things that are being done to help improve conditions for the horses.
Another charge is that, after racing, many race horses do not find suitable homes. Finding suitable homes for retirees is definitely another problem of the industry. One of the good things to come of all the publicity is that many nonprofit organizations have sprung up to help find homes for retiring thoroughbreds. In my part of the country, many of the racehorses can be sold for polo or for jumping. Also many of the pony people prefer retired TBs for pony horses. More awareness of this problem will bring more homes for the retirees.
Some people charge that the reason that there are so many injuries is that the people involved just don't care about their horses. This is absolutely not the case. That is like saying that no one cares about their cats or dogs because so many pets wind up abandoned, run down on the highway, or euthanized in the pound. Unfortunately, there are people who own horses (and cats and dogs) who are cruel, or negligent. But that does not mean that the majority are. All the horses at the track have regular vet care. The private practice vets make the rounds of their stables every day. The trainers check the horse's legs and feet as well as their temperature daily. A groom will take care of the horse's daily needs. Each groom is assigned his or her own horses to take care of (usually 4), and is responsible for cleaning the stall, grooming, saddling, bathing, feeding, and "doing up" their charges every day. "Doing up", means applying liniment or other substances to help keep the horses' legs healthy. After brushing, the groom will check the legs for any heat or swelling, apply the liniment, rub (massage) the legs, and wrap them in standing bandages. The trainers give much thought and care into deciding each horse's training schedule. Particular care is taken to make sure the horse is fit. "Fit" means he has been conditioned in strength, stamina, and air, and is physically fit to race. Months and months are spent conditioning a young horse or a horse coming back from a layoff before he is ready to race.
Another charge is that the people on the track are just in it for the money. This is not true at all. Most track people do not make a lot of money. Combine that with the fact that it's a 7 day a week job, many of those days 10-14 hours long, (many days worked in a split shift, so that the people only get 4 hours sleep at a time), and the fact that they're moving 2 or 3 times a year - and it should be clear it isn't the money that motivates them. Most people are in it because they love horses.
Another assumption is that because racehorses are not kept after they can no longer race, that no one cares about them. And I guess, at first glance, this might seem true. But think about it. Who sold you your horse? It was either someone in the horse business, who was making money at it, or it was someone who could no longer keep his horse, either because he couldn't afford the cost, or he no longer had a use for the horse. So how is the person who sold your horse any different than the people on the track who often GIVE their horses away in the hopes that they'll find a good home. It is a misconception to think that ex-racehorses are the only ones that are going to the killers. Before the slaughterhouses were done away with in the US, many horse people I know, went to the "killer sales" (cheap sales with killer buyers there). They were looking for inexpensive horses they could retrain into useful riding horses. And guess what? Even in a state with a huge TB industry, the majority of the horses being run through the sales were riding horses, not ex-race horses. The rescue organizations also usually have more riding horses than thoroughbreds to try and relocate. So while, finding homes for retired thoroughbreds is a real problem, it's not JUST a thoroughbred problem.
So to sum up, I have no problem with people being concerned about the number of injuries in our industry. It is a problem that needs more study and more improvements. I have no problem with people being concerned with the plight of the retired thoroughbred. The more people who are concerned, the more homes will be found for deserving racehorses, (and due to the publicity) perhaps for other types of horses as well. I do have problems with people characterizing the whole industry as unfeeling, greedy people who look at horses solely as money machines, because this is absolutely untrue. It's easy to stand outside and point fingers and condemn. It's harder to actually be part of the solution. So to all the people that say they're concerned about racehorses, I say put your money where your mouth is. Realistically, there is plenty you can do to help improve our industry. And true, pointing out statistics and bringing awareness to the problem is helping, but trashing the whole industry and its people is not.