Posted on Sun, Jul. 27, 2008
By Maryjean Wall
Someone who is not involved in horse racing asked me recently whether the sport had ever ”straightened out its problems.“ With that jewel of summertime racing, Saratoga, now up and running this seems a good time to take stock.
Since Kentucky Derby day, May 3, we have heard renewed outcries against the use of jockeys' whips, of steroids, of questionable shoeing, of the Thoroughbred breed manipulated to produce speed over soundness, of racing fillies against colts and of that one controversy that never goes away, the racing of 2-year-olds.
People of the 19th century debated the racing of 2-year-olds. Racehorses received drugs and potions back then, just as they do now. In 1900, a racing magazine decried the practice of ”hopping“ horses and reported that even the major stables were giving their horses dope. Sound familiar?
Many now believe that racing will be unable to clean up its act because it lacks a national office or czar. The Jockey Club, which outsiders mistakenly believe runs the sport, was stripped of its last ounce of real power during the 1950s by a court judgment brought by a gambler after The Jockey Club denied him a racing license in New York.
All the same, The Jockey Club has taken many initiatives and was ahead of the latest outcry over track injuries when it began almost a year ago tracking injuries to try to learn why they occur. This will be an invaluable database at it evolves.
Racing needs to realize that society's notions about the treatment of animals have changed radically, even over the past decade. People no longer overlook the whipping of horses or the revelations that the latest Kentucky Derby winner raced on steroids.
Where I see the most realistic movement toward change is at the opposite end of all the hand-wringing taking place over the absence of national leadership in this sport. The most encouraging development is the groundswell of individual racetracks, sales companies and state racing commissions taking leadership into their own hands.
Some are moving to outlaw steroids in their states. Some racetracks have enacted ”house rules“ banning the types of shoes that the sport has known for some years were conducive to breakdowns. The research data on ”toe grabs,“ or cleats, on shoes was out there. Unfortunately, until pushed, racing seemed to lack the will to act.
So, if we're taking stock, I see positive changes evolving. It took public outcry to get the momentum going, but at least there is momentum. The public has said, ”enough.“ Now it's up to racing to take back control of the sport — and I think we're beginning to see that happen.
Maryjean Wall blogs about racing's more uplifting stories at Maryjeanwall.com.