A four-hour hearing in the New York Senate on Wednesday featuring 20 witnesses laid bare competing, often diametrically opposed perceptions of the racing industry, at a time when the sport is being attacked by some critics and organizations over the health and safety of its horses.
The hearing, which was held before a handful of members of the New York Senate Racing, Wagering, and Gaming Committee, featured several speakers that openly called for the abolition of racing, countered by speakers who sought to emphasize the strides the sport had made over the past several years in attempting to address the frequency of catastrophic injuries and provide aftercare options for retired horses.
The committee chair, Sen. Joseph Addabbo, was joined at one time by four other members of the committee, but one of those members left after the first 90 minutes, while another migrated in and out of the hearing room. The two members who attended the entire hearing, Addabbo and Sen. Daphne Jordan, both appeared to be unreceptive to the calls to ban the sport, and both stressed the industry’s economic impact in remarks to some of the panelists.
“I think [horse racing is] still an industry that is relevant and solid in our state,” Addabbo said. “That being said, there are issues.”
Those issues were brought up continually and resolutely by a string of panelists appearing during the middle two hours of the hearings, as veterinarians who are critical of the industry attacked the sport’s current medication practices and accused racetrack practitioners of widespread abuses. Other panelists excoriated the industry over its neutral position on horse slaughter, while two others said that the state legislature has a “moral obligation” to outlaw the sport.
“Horse racing in New York state, horse racing in America, has run its course, and horse racing must end,” said Patrick Battuello, who runs an anti-racing website called horseracingwrongs.com and who often protests outside of Saratoga Race Course. “It cannot be fixed or reformed. It is wrong from the start.”
The hearing, scheduled three days before the running of the state’s most prestigious race, the Belmont Stakes, was held in the wake of calls in some quarters of the U.S. for racing at Santa Anita in Southern California to be shut down due to a spate of deaths at the track this year that drew widespread attention. The title of the hearing was “To Examine the Health of Racehorse while Training and Racing, and Resources for Aftercare.”
The panel first heard from Robert Williams, the executive director of the New York Gaming Commission, and Dr. Scott Palmer, who is the commission’s equine medical director. Both stressed that New York has reduced its fatality rate by 32 percent since 2011, in large part because of the work done by a state panel convened to consider changes to the sport in order to address a large number of catastrophic injuries at Aqueduct over the 2011-2012 winter racing season.
“We are leaders in safety in North America, no doubt about it,” Palmer said. He later outlined to the committee the steps that had been taken in New York to address the deaths.
But the gaming commission officials were followed immediately thereafter by two equine veterinarians who were sharply critical of racetrack practitioners, with both claiming that the veterinarians on-track take their orders from trainers instead of assessing the needs of the horses.
“The truth is, that attitude is normal practice on the racetracks,” said Kraig Kulikowski, an equine veterinarian who practices in upstate New York. Kulikowski said he interned at the racetrack 20 years ago, at which point he decided to practice away from the track. “The racetrack health-care environment is one of lawlessness on multiple levels,” Kulikowski said.
The claim that trainers determine medication practices for their horses is a consistent complaint lodged by critics of the sport, through racetrack practitioners for the most part deny such claims, saying they adhere to practices recommended by the American Association of Equine Practitioners, a trade group.
Much of the next 90 minutes of the hearing was devoted to the issue of slaughter and aftercare, with critics of horse slaughter contending that Thoroughbred racehorses are consistently among the tens of thousands of horses that are sent to slaughter each year in Mexico and Canada. The last U.S. horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007, largely because of legislation that defunded the inspection of horse meat in the U.S.
While some of the critics worked for non-profit organizations formed to oppose horse slaughter, a number also worked for animal organizations that take in horses from the racetrack for retraining or retirement. One critic of horse slaughter, John Holland, the founder of an organization called the Equine Welfare Alliance, claimed that the racing industry would need $1 billion a year to fund the retirement of all the horses that are produced each year.
“So how would you go about ending it?” asked Sen. Jordan.
“If they could come up with a billion dollars a year, that would help,” Holland said. “But they can’t.”
Representatives of New York’s Thoroughbred horsemen sharply disputed some of the numbers and facts produced by the sport’s critics at the hearing.
“Some of the things you may have been told may not be factual, and some of the statistics you have heard thrown in the air may not be factual either,” said Jeffrey Cannizzo, the executive director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders, the last panelist to appear at the hearing.
Both Andy Belfiore, the executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and Richard Schosberg, a New York-based trainer who works on behalf of the organization’s aftercare and retirement program, outlined how horses whose careers have ended are aided by the organization. Schosberg told the senators that the programs “do everything we can to make sure those horses find safe haven,” and he said the existing program, while not perfect, is a leader in the industry.
“We want to be at the forefront of aftercare,” Schosberg said. “We are on the forefront of racing, and we want to take the lead on aftercare, and on every issue.”
Sen. Addabbo stressed at the end of the hearing that he wanted to work “with you people on the front lines every day” to determine potential solutions to some of the problems raised at the hearing. Those people were all representatives of the racing industry who appeared as part of the last panel of witnesses.
“Hopefully this hearing provides a blueprint for how we go forward,” Addabbo said.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.