Good News for the Horse, But the Fight Goes on

Captain Conan, Carlito Brigante and Tap Night jump a fence in the Betfred Manifesto Novices' Chase during Grand Opening Day o
Captain Conan, Carlito Brigante and Tap Night jump a fence in the Betfred Manifesto Novices' Chase during Grand Opening Day of the 2013 John Smith's Grand National Meeting at Aintree Racecourse, Sefton.

The news is getting better for horses.

The Obama Administration is getting behind a proposed ban on the slaughter of horses for meat, adding to the growing opposition to a plan for resuming the practice in New Mexico. Also, as reported by Joe Drape in The New York Times, California state officials are conducting a serious investigation into the sudden deaths of more than two dozen racing horses. And in Great Britain the terrible spectacle of horse deaths at the Grand National steeplechase has renewed public criticism of an event that has become too dangerous for both riders and their mounts.

As much as we might romanticize the steeplechase (think young Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet) and racetracks as Damon Runyon did, the truth about the welfare of horses used for sport is mixed at best. In steeplechase and other 'eventing" disciplines horses and riders too often face unsafe courses. Polo ponies are often drugged to improve their performance (sometimes with deadly consequences). And anyone who has spent time in the "backside" sheds at a typical track will tell you that the treatment afforded horses ranges from the ideal to the unconscionable.

At racetracks, much depends on the integrity of trainers who too often regard their equine athletes as expendable machines that can be worked to the point of breakdown and then discarded. Add-in the financial pressure and the many marginal characters who gravitate to tracks and you have condition ripe for abuse.

So far, California racing authorities have not found a common cause for the spike in racehorse fatalities. However they are alarmed because these animal are, literally, strong as horses, and sudden, mysterious deaths from apparent heart failure are extremely rare. Not surprisingly, they are focusing intently on the problem of drugs in the sport.

U.S. authorities permit much more drug use than officials in other major racing countries, and it's no coincidence that the death rate for American racers is much higher. Here, too many trainers and others with access to horses operate much like baseball players and cyclists scheming to stay one step ahead of anti-doping regimes. Clandestine "designer drugs" of the sort taken by human athletes circulate in the shadows of the sport and many are difficult, if not impossible to trace with the technology now used by monitors.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Joe Drape, who should be rewarded with a Pulitzer prize for his efforts in the past year, individual states are moving to control the use of drugs at racetracks more closely. Last month a group of eastern states cut the list of approved medications for race horses to 24. It's still too many, but the progress is real. Other states are considering joining the group, adopting their rules, and bringing more order to the racing game.

In the meantime, soul searching is underway in Britain after the national debacle and the businesspeople behind the New Mexico slaughterhouse plan have begun to complain about losing money on investments made in the hope that they might start killing soon. They intend to lobby members of Congress to overcome the Obama ban. This means that while today is a good day for the horse, the fight goes on.