Last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup was different than any of the previous ones since I started covering horse racing in the Capital District back in 1995. And it had only one thing to do with what happened on-track.
The difference was what arrived in my email Sunday morning. Following the post-race death of horse Mongolian Groom, after he was pulled up with a severe injury in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday, I received two emails. One was a statement from the Humane Society of the United States, and the second was a statement from Animal Wellness Action.
Among other things, the statements called the decision to have the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita — which had a well-publicized problem with equine deaths over its various tracks last winter and spring — ill advised, and both urged passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act (HRI), currently awaiting action in the U.S. Senate and which has a companion bill in the House of Representatives. Animal Wellness Action did note that Santa Anita's owner, the Stronach Group, while perhaps not handling its earlier problem the best way, has been on board with the HRI.
Also in the aftermath, there has been a lot of national coverage that led with the fact that another horse died at Santa Anita, and when does this become enough?
On the other hand, 109,054 people attended over the two days and the combined handle of $174,000,574 was the highest since the Breeders’ Cup went to a two-day format in 2007.
So which is it: Horse racing is facing a serious problem and because it doesn’t have one governing body — rather states and fractions of those states that can’t agree on much — is going to fiddle while Rome burns? Or horse racing is doing just fine, as witnessed by the attendance and handle numbers of the Breeders’ Cup and the larger, more established meets such as Saratoga, Churchill Downs and Keeneland?
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Actually, it’s both, but a little more the former.
Too many people within the industry have dismissed Santa Anita’s problems as its own and blamed the media for stirring the pot and not focusing on the good things. The media doesn’t make news, it reports it, and right now there is a real anti-horse racing sentiment nationally. Thinking it couldn’t spread beyond California is naive.
There is a lot of political pressure on California Gov. Gavin Newsom to, at the very least, shut Santa Anita down until it makes a more serious effort to fix its courses, and at the most, to make horse racing illegal in the state. While it is unlikely he would shut the industry down, he has already shown he’s not afraid to take on corporate big boys — such as his move to become the first state to challenge the NCAA and allow college athletes to hire agents and make money from endorsements. A man who has told the NCAA to bring it, in so many words, would have no hesitation telling a second-tier sport like horse racing to do the same.
And if the noise has gotten achingly loud in California, a state with a proud horse racing tradition, it can happen anywhere.
The only Breeders’ Cup I covered for The Post-Star was in 2007 at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. That year’s Classic also had a death, the British horse George Washington. There was the usual sadness, but no call for reforms.
It’s not 2007 anymore.