Tue, May

CityWatch Today: The Deaths at Santa Anita Remind Me Why I Don’t Miss Horse Racing


GUEST WORDS--I first heard about the unusually high number of horses dying at Santa Anita Park — which led to the temporary closure of the racetrack last week — from a friend at the barn where I keep my horses. She is still interested in horse racing. I am not. 

Like a lot of former fans, I never loved racing for the betting — I loved it for the beauty of the animals. What drew me was their beauty, their individuality, their pleasure in their job, whether it was running, jumping or standing still. But after breeding some, sending them to an honest and caring trainer, and writing a novel about the racetrack — a microcosm of capitalism itself — I backed away. 

I suspect that in the 1960s when I was growing up in St. Louis, things were worse than they are today. All winter long, horses who had run in the spring, summer and fall had their legs blistered and pin-fired (yes, cruel treatments), were stuck in stalls for weeks, and then girls like me walked them up and down the aisle of the barn until they were ready to go back into training. 

The first horse I bought as an adult was the one who inspired me to start breeding racehorses in the mid-1990s. He was 9 when he left the track, after 52 starts and $165,000 in winnings and was still perfectly sound at age 14 when I bought him. I decided to breed distance runners like him — horses that didn’t run as fast, and, in the case of one of my horses’ grandsires, ran 40 races, came away sound, and lived into his 30s. I thought that was the model. But it isn’t, at least not in the United States. 

I have another friend, an American woman who trains racehorses in France. Conditions are much different there. The horses don’t start racing so young, and they don’t run as fast as they can around an oval track, pushed harder and harder because the bettors like speed. My friend trains her horses in a wooded area on different types of footing, and the races have that kind of variety, too. The footing is less uniform and more natural, and how they go is more interesting than how fast they go. Her horses race for several years and retire in good health. (Read the rest.)