Dying on the track: Horse racing is at a crossroads

Dying on the track: Horse racing is at a crossroads
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The fatal heart attack that felled Congrats Gal at Pimlico on Black Eyed Susan Day last week was just the latest sign that horse racing, which has enjoyed substantial social sanction over the centuries, is in serious straits. The death at Pimlico follows a spate of racetrack deaths that promise to diminish racing’s appeal, including 24 at Santa Anita earlier this year, and 43 at Churchill Downs during the last three years. Those of us who care about horses, within and outside of the industry, cannot afford to look away.

Nor should we sidestep our responsibility to work together to institute intelligent reforms on which we can agree. That’s the very foundation the Horse racing Integrity Act, H.R. 1754, introduced by Reps. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoHouse Democrats push automakers to rebuff Trump, join California's fuel efficiency deal Overnight Energy: Democrats seek help in appealing to conservatives on climate | Whistleblowers say Interior sidelined scientists | Automakers strike fuel efficiency deal with California in rebuff to Trump Interior whistleblowers say agency has sidelined scientists under Trump MORE (D-N.Y.) and Andy BarrAndy Hale BarrMcConnell campaign criticized for tombstone with challenger's name McConnnell launches statewide attack ad against Democratic Senate challenger Kentucky Democrat announces challenge to GOP Rep. Andy Barr MORE (R-Ky.), which calls for introduction of a uniform standard for medication and drug testing in racehorses, uniform penalties for violations and a ban on race-day medication. The Humane Society of the United States, the Jockey Club and other stakeholders all jointly support this legislation.

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The bill, which would assign responsibility for establishing a national oversight body to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, has strong bipartisan support in the Congress, too, and that’s as it should be. People of any political stripe ought to be able to agree on the basic premise that races should be decided on the basis of the individual horse’s natural ability and state of health, and not on the artifice of a drug that masks pain or boosts performance.

We should also be able to agree that horse racing would benefit from a uniform standard, just as the National Football League does, in a matter of such complexity and importance. We are lucky to live in a nation where Republicans and Democrats alike are ready to stand together for something that’s both just and right, a square deal for animals whose welfare is entirely dependent upon the grace and mercy of humankind. Their willingness to do so gives us an opportunity to match and even to exceed the standards of care adopted in other developed nations already.

The approach taken by the humane movement to horse racing has been one of constructive engagement, and it’s the same we’ve taken in relation to other billion-dollar industries that (rely on) involve animals. We’ve relied on public policy and corporate social responsibility initiatives to produce substantial benefits for animals raised for food, and for animals used in research, for example.

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We recognize the goodwill that exists among countless equestrians, and we see them as our allies in efforts to find homes for horses, to prevent cruelty and abuse of horses, to create meaningful retirement options for racehorses and to improve horse welfare throughout the United States.

The Horse racing Integrity Act deserves to pass on the basis of its simple merits. But it is also true that its passage would lay the groundwork for discussion of additional reforms to benefit horses and people alike. The momentum of the moment is not something we should squander.

In his classic work “On Horsemanship” (c. 350 BC), the Athenian essayist and equestrian Xenophon wrote, “Anything forced is not beautiful.” The kinds of practices brought into relief by the recent tragedies are all forced, and the deaths we have witnessed are decidedly not beautiful. So, what will we choose to do about it?

Kitty Block is CEO and president of the Humane Society of the United States.