One of the nation’s leading animal welfare organizations has teamed up with top leaders in the U.S. horse racing industry to find common ground to improve the treatment of race horses during and after their careers.
In June – less than month after two horses were destroyed after breakdowns in Preakness day races at Pimlico Race Course - Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States and Joe DeFrancis former chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, announced the formation of the HSUS Horse Racing Advisory Council.
The focus of the council is passage of the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015. The federal legislation would give authority to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for equine medication policy and drug testing. Similar versions have failed to gain traction in Congress but animal welfare advocates are more hopeful with a broader coalition of supporters.
“We have a movement in Congress to get something done on horse racing reform,” said Pacelle in an interview. “The industry has repelled efforts for decades to have any regulatory responsibility over the treatment of horses.”
DeFrancis, whose Jockey Club is the corporate parent of Laurel Park and Pimlico, said he is excited to work with HSUS and others to advance the cause of creating a safer, more humane horse racing industry.
“I have every expectation and confidence that the council will be a catalyst for the enactment of federal policies for the betterment of horse racing, to the benefit of all involved: horses, industry participants and fans,” said DeFrancis.
Pacelle said allowing the Anti-Doping agency to make determinations on drugs in racing would provide an independent entity to oversee a sport rife with abuse.
“They have a value system developed in human sports. We’ve seen doping in baseball, cycling and the Olympics. Why shouldn’t equine athletes have the same protection?” Pacelle said.
The group will also focus on racehorse “aftercare,” how to better protect Thoroughbreds in their retirement and prevent them from being funneled into the horse slaughter pipeline.
In addition to DeFrancis, council members include a diverse set of stakeholders within the industry, including Jim Gagliano, president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club; Stacie Clark-Rogers, who runs the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance; Allen Gutterman, a retired horse racing marketing consultant; Joe Gorajec, former executive director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission; Staci Hancock, a Kentucky breeder involved in thoroughbred retirement; and retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron.
While there are no representatives on the council from Pennsylvania at this time, Pacelle left the door open to including representation from the Commonwealth.
“The nucleus will expand from here. We want to have representation from different sectors of the industry, he said. “Geographical distribution is also important.”
Pacelle said the council represents the HSUS’s latest step in efforts to engage with industries and corporations that use animals in live entertainment, like Sea World, and those which feed the world--agribusiness, giant retailers and global fast food outlets.
Pacelle, author of the recently published book, “The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Consumers are Transforming the Lives of Animals,” which examines the sea-change in business and policy, said horse racing has been the outlier.
He said with individuals like DeFrancis and Gagliano and others who are respected positions of influence in the industry it will be more difficult for the industry to criticize the group’s effort.
But it didn’t take long for the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association to deliver a scathing review of the initiative. In a letter to Thoroughbred Daily News, NHBPA chief executive officer Eric Hamelback dismissed the council for not having representatives currently involved in the racing industry and for seeking to pass legislation that it opposed to address a problem he said “doesn’t exist.”
DeFrancis countered with a letter of his own accusing Hamelback of misrepresenting his own career, and spreading falsehoods about HSUS’s intent in creating the council.
“At the end of the day, everyone involved in horse racing should share the common goal of taking all reasonable steps to protect and enhance the welfare of the equine athletes who give their all for the benefit of the fans and the people who earn their livelihoods from the horse racing industry,” wrote DeFrancis.
In Pennsylvania, the move did not receive a rousing reception from at least one industry leader. Todd Mosteller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said he was aware of the council but that he had not taken a close look at its positions on issues.
Mosteller said the PHBPA opposes the horse racing reform legislation in Congress because it doesn’t believe in federal oversight of the use of medications on tracks by an organization that “doesn’t know our industry.”
Bob Baker, executive director of Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, a former race horse owner and long-time investigator for the HSUS and the ASPCA, said he too doesn’t have faith that federal legislation will bring true reform.
“My concern is that there is no guarantee that a national program is going to be any better than the states’ and it gives credibility to the industry,” he said. “The question is, can racing be humane? There is pressure for federal legislation, but there is pushback from the industry that says ‘we can do it on our own.’ Ideally that’s good but I don’t see it happening.”
Still, Pacelle sees Pennsylvania as prime for reform with a widespread doping scandal at Penn National Race Course the subject of an ongoing federal investigation. The probe has so far led to the conviction of one trainer, guilty pleas by four veterinarians in exchange for cooperating with investigators and calls for overhauling the Pennsylvania Racing Commission.
“There is so much scandal in Pennsylvania racing,” said Pacelle. “It is a case example of why reform is needed.”