Why is the Humane Society of the U.S. helping horse racing to expand into new territory?
ATLANTA, Georgia––Again the perennial horse racing industry attempt to legalize pari-mutuel betting and introduce thoroughbred racing to Georgia failed during the 2020 state legislative session, closed on July 3.
Opposition to legalizing pari-mutuel betting came chiefly from religious groups opposed to any gambling on principle, and from animal advocates not aligned with major national organizations.
Again the Humane Society of the U.S. [HSUS], instead of celebrating another small victory along the way toward the final collapse of horse racing, was on the wrong end of a cynical wager: that it can trade endorsement of horse racing for Jockey Club support of federal regulation of drug use, without donors, activists, and the public asking embarrassing questions.
Why is HSUS backing the horse racing industry?
Like, why is HSUS collaborating with the horse racing industry to help it expand into new territory, if only by sitting out the debate, when the industry has been contracting everywhere else for decades, and there is little beyond industry claims to suggest that Georgians want it?
The pro-industry Georgia Horse Racing Coalition web site projects that thoroughbred racing with pari-mutuel betting could add more than a billion dollars a year to the state gross domestic product, but details of how are thin.
The audience for televised horse racing reportedly tripled in early spring 2020, after most other televised sporting events were cancelled due to COVID-19.
With casinos also closed, Gulfstream Park, in Hallandale Beach, Florida, over the March 28-29, 2020 weekend set records of $53.8 million in one-day total betting handle and $11.3 million in average daily total handle for a race meet.
But Gulfstream profits did not bail out horse racing as a whole.
Horse racing industry in trouble even before COVID-19
Despite the increased television viewership, and despite the Gulfstream success, reported Frank Angst for Blood Horse, “For the opening quarter of 2020, year over year, purses were off 9.64% to $205,227,651. That decline nearly matched the 9.25% decline in first-quarter races in 2020.”
Another way to phrase that would be, “Losses of racing dates because of COVID-19 did not entirely account for continuing revenue losses.”
On the investment side of the ledger, reported Mike Freeman of the San Diego Union Tribune on April 25 2020, “The Del Mar Race Track Authority’s revenue bonds were downgraded to junk status this week over worries about not only declining fan support in California for horse racing but also the impact of the coronavirus on attendance.”
Georgia Steeplechase scratches twice
There has already long been some horse racing in Georgia without pari-mutuel betting, and without much economic success in recent years, notably the Atlanta Steeplechase and the Hawkinsville Harness Festival in Pulaski County.
Begun in 1965, the Atlanta Steeplechase folded in 2017 from lack of sponsorship, returned in 2018 as the Georgia Steeplechase, cancelled a spring racing date in 2019, and was not run in spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis.
The Hawkinsville Harness Festival, begun in 1974, was also cancelled in 2020. While harness racers have reputedly trained on Hawkinsville tracks since 1894, actual racing there is so obscure that even local media seldom report results––although in 2011 there was extensive coverage of a five-kilometer Hawkinsville Harness Festival roadrace held for humans.
Going to the whip
“With state tax collections running below expectations even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, supporters of legalized gambling in Georgia were optimistic,” assessed Dave Williams of the Capitol Beat News Service.
“But even the glaring need for additional sources of tax revenue wasn’t enough to get casino gambling or pari-mutuel betting on horse racing over the finish line.”
Georgia horse racing lobbyists can be expected to go to the whip again to try to get pari-mutuel gambling legalized in 2021.
“With a large number of incumbent lawmakers leaving office this year,” wrote Williams, “supporters of legalized gambling can hope a more sympathetic crop of newly elected legislators will join the General Assembly next year.
“However, a more likely source of momentum lies in Georgia’s ongoing budget woes,” Williams predicted, especially “if the recession brought on by the spread of COVID-19 drags on.”
“Getting to know HSUS”
And the Humane Society of the U.S. endorsement will not inhibit racing industry ambitions.
“An Unlikely Ally? Getting To Know The Humane Society Of The United States,” headlined Natalie Voss for the Paulick Report, a horse racing industry news website, back on June 24, 2015, about a month after the Jockey Club and Breeders’ Cup first joined with HSUS in support of a federal anti-doping bill.
Explained then-HSUS president Wayne Pacelle to Voss, “We’re not against racing. We want it done well and humanely.”
Wrote Voss, “Pacelle said HSUS does have a number of concerns about practices within the sport, and many of the items on his list have also been on the minds of internal racing reform advocates for years: breeding for soundness, overbreeding, race day medication, masking and performance-enhancing drugs, aftercare, track surface safety, two-year-old racing, and appropriate whip use.”
All of those concerns are still as problematic today as then.
“HSUS could be a good ally for horse people”
“The partnership came about,” Voss explained, “when Joe De Francis, chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club from 1989 to 2007, reconnected with former colleague Rick Bernthal, who had become the chairman of the board for HSUS,” and is incidentally also the longtime most influential pit bull advocate within HSUS.
“It occurred to De Francis that HSUS could be a good ally for horse people, too,” Voss said.
Pacelle left HSUS in February 2018.
Despite a conspicuous lack of any evident results on behalf of horses through the alliance with the Jockey Club and other racing industry players, current HSUS president Kitty Block has often reiterated that HSUS is “not, in principle, opposing horse racing,” even though Block is thoroughly aware of the abuses that have been historically endemic to the racing industry for as long as betting on races has been documented.
Only 35 of 113 tracks report horse injuries
Blogged Block on June 22, 2020, “This past year has placed the sport—and its key players—under more scrutiny than ever before because of a string of horse deaths, including 18 this year alone at Belmont Park and dozens more at Santa Anita and other racetracks throughout the nation. On top of that, the indictment earlier this year of 27 trainers, veterinarians, pharmacists and drug distributors in a doping scandal has generated more suspicion and skepticism.
“The horse racing industry itself, instead of penalizing such trainers,” Block acknowledged, “has rallied around them by creating a system that does not even require the bare minimum of accountability. For instance, at present racetracks are not required to report horse injuries; the only ones who do so do it voluntarily. According to the Jockey Club,” Block mentioned, “only 35 out of 113 operating North American racetracks participate in its voluntary Equine Injury Database.”
That statistic alone would suggest that the Jockey Club does not have the clout within the racing industry necessary to implement major reforms.
Horse racing feeds the slaughter industry
Just a week earlier, on June 16, 2020, Block appended to a similar blog an italicized demand “that not one more horse should be slaughtered, trained abusively through the cruelty of soring, or die on a racetrack.”
Block failed to note that the horse racing industry is among the major sources of horses sold to slaughter.
“An estimated 7,500 thoroughbreds a year are slaughtered for human consumption, according to Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association,” wrote USA Today investigative reporter Josh Peter in an October 31, 2019 exposé.
Older sources put the number far higher.
A coalition of 500 horse rescues?
The Peter exposé of thoroughbreds sold to slaughter appeared about three months after HSUS campaign manager for horse protection Valerie Pringle in early August 2019 addressed a Jockey Club gathering.
“We’re working with the racing industry primarily on medication reform,” Pringle said, claiming the support of “a coalition of 500 horse rescues all over the country,” none of them named.
“The Horse Racing Integrity Act is something that our organization has worked on for the past several years,” continued Pringle. “And I would like to go over the three reasons that we really believe that this is going to be a game-changer for an industry that we support.
“First of all, it’s going to ban race-day medication. If a horse has to race on drugs, we don’t believe that horse should be racing. It’s very simple.
“We are not among the animal welfare crazies”
“Number two, we think horses are going to benefit with a national rule book of medication. So when they travel intrastate and they’re going from state to state, horses won’t have to be subjected to different levels of legal medication and trainers won’t be confused. We think that as with other national sports, that there should be a national rule book.
“And we also support the idea of increased out-of-competition testing.”
Concluded Pringle, “We are not among the animal welfare crazies who are trying to shut you down. We want to work with you. We’re committed to seeing this industry thrive as we help to insure the protection of racehorses.”
Horseracing Wrongs web site founder Patrick Battuello responded in a June 24, 2020 posting entitled “Betrayal: The HSUS and Horses.”
HSUS on comparable industries
Battuello began by reciting the HSUS positions on several comparable industries.
For example, Battuello quoted from a variety of HSUS policy statements, “HSUS opposes the use of captive wild animals as performers in circuses, film, television and commercials.
“It is unacceptable [according to HSUS] for marine mammals to be held in captivity for the purpose of public display. HSUS opposes bullfighting. HSUS opposes bull riding, bronco riding, steer roping, calf roping, ‘wild horse racing,’ chuck wagon racing, steer tailing and horse tripping.”
In particular, Battuello pointed out, “HSUS opposes greyhound racing.”
Says HSUS of greyhound racing, “This practice leads to an unacceptable level of greyhound exploitation and suffering solely for profit. The industry promotes and tolerates an overproduction of dogs, resulting in an annual surplus numbering in the thousands, many of whom will end up being destroyed. The sheer waste of life is a scandal.”
All of that can be said of greyhound racing as well, but even at peak the greyhound industry consumed a fraction as many dogs’ lives as horse racing consumed horses.”
“Horse racing is, by any and all definitions, animal exploitation,” finished Battuello. “By (very publicly) stating it is not philosophically opposed to horse racing, HSUS is (very publicly) stating it is not philosophically opposed to all forms of animal cruelty.”