I love going to the race track at Saratoga, and I was there again on opening day Thursday.
Saratoga is many things to many people. I love the race track as an antiquity. I compare it to going to an old ballpark in the 1930s, when games were played during the day with the grandstand half-full.
I love the pace. Like baseball, the action moves slowly between races, punctuated dramatically by two minutes of frenetic action and wild cheering from the fans.
I love watching the people, from the grand ladies in their fancy hats and lovely attire, to the men in sports coats, to the backyard picnic crowd. The race track is its own melting pot, with the 1 percent who own the horses rubbing shoulders with the immigrants who walk and exercise them and muck out their stalls.
I love the challenge of handicapping a race, the smell of cigars around the betting windows and the excitement of winning a few dollars with a good pick.
But most of all there is the pageantry, from the saddling of the horses in the paddock and the procession out to the race track to being able to get near these powerful thoroughbreds. They are truly majestic.
But obviously, I am not telling the whole story.
I found this passage from The Atlantic in an essay by Andrew Cohen called “The ugly truth about horse racing.”
“There are essentially three types of people in horse racing. There are the crooks who dangerously drug or otherwise abuse their horses, or who countenance such conduct from their agents, and who then dare the industry to come catch them. Then there are the dupes who labor under the fantasy that the sport is broadly fair and honest. And there are those masses in the middle—neither naive nor cheaters but rather honorable souls—who know the industry is more crooked than it ought to be but who still don’t do all they can to fix the problem.”
I have to count myself among the last group.
I have written about horse racing off and on for the past 30 years. I’ve seen horses break down on the track and be put down. I’ve seen horses frothing at the mouth after a grueling race on a hot summer day. And I’ve seen the wild look they get sometimes before races.
I don’t ever recall writing anything negative about horse racing.
Horse racing has problems that need to be addressed.
This past year, Santa Anita in California had 30 horses die while racing since the end of 2018 and no one is sure why.
It forced the track to close for a time.
There were renewed outcries from those who believe these animals should be protected.
It made news locally when two students at Mechanicville High turned their backs on their keynote graduation speaker — renowned horse trainer Chad Brown, who is also from Mechanicville — because of past connections with the deaths of horses he raced.
And while New York has a much better record than many other states when it comes to horse deaths, the Rockland/Westchester Journal News reported earlier this year that 604 horses had died in New York from race-related injuries since 2009. To offer context, Belmont Park alone has an estimated 5,000 races and some 30,000 training events each year.
It’s good to be debating this as the Saratoga meet gets underway.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has proposed bipartisan legislation that makes a lot of sense and something many people in the horse racing industry have said needs to be done.
The Horseracing Integrity Act would set up a uniform independent anti-doping agency to oversee drug use in the horse racing industry. Currently, there are 38 different state racing jurisdictions, each with its own policies.
Setting up a national governing body would also allow the sport to address which — if any — drugs are acceptable for thoroughbreds before a race, specifically Lasix.
Lasix, also known as furosemide, is an anti-bleeding medication given to horses about four hours before a race to prevent respiratory bleeding in horses running at high speed. Blood entering the lungs during the racing can result in a pulmonary hemorrhage and death. While many would say it is preventative, others argue it enhances performance. Lasix is also a diuretic that causes horse to urinate and lose as much as 20 to 30 pounds before a race. A lighter horse can run faster.
For the opening race at Saratoga Thursday, every horse was running on Lasix. While it is commonly used in North America, the medication is mostly banned outside the continent on race days.
Having one set of rules for North American tracks would be an enormous step forward in putting the health of the animals first and foremost.
There is a lot of money in horse racing, and any time a lot of money is at stake, the unscrupulous will cut corners and do what it takes to win for their own benefit.
Horse racing is an enormous economic engine to our region.
It has a long and rich tradition. Making it safer for the animals will make it more popular with the public.
Change is long overdue.