As a child growing up in Brooklyn, I looked forward to attending Harmony Heart Camp in Pennsylvania every summer. It was my six-week respite from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Among the counselors’ primary concerns was sharing the Bible and making sure we were good Christian boys and girls. But there were plenty of fun things to do, too, including swimming, rowing, hiking, sports, arts & crafts, and — my favorite activity — horseback riding.
“Ponyback” riding is more accurate, but that’s irrelevant.
I gravitated to the corral and spent most of my time there over the next several years. This city slicker became quite the young horseman, winning several blue ribbons in rodeo events and eventually being entrusted to help counselors run the operation: grooming, saddling, feeding, and administering rides to my fellow campers.
I wanted to stay around those beautiful animals and began conjuring ways to keep one at home, despite dwelling in an apartment building. (My mother gently let me know that such aspirations were futile.) I dreamed of becoming a jockey and/or working around horses for the rest of my life.
Alas, the closest I’ve come is covering a Kentucky Derby, reporting on an opening day at Saratoga, and spending a few days at Aqueduct to write about a jockey of interest to my Florida newspaper.
Though they’ve barely been in my life since I was 14, I still love horses.
I believe that The Stronach Group (owner of Santa Anita Park), the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and the California Thoroughbred Trainers feel likewise. I just question their decision to continue racing in light of two more horse deaths in two days, bringing the total to 29 at Santa Anita during the current season.
The California Horse Racing Board had never asked a track to suspend racing before recently making the request of Santa Anita, a request that preceded Sunday’s death of Truffalino, a 3-year-old filly, and Saturday’s death of Formal Dude, a 4-year-old gelding.
The track wouldn’t shut down entirely under the recommendation. Horses would still be trained and exercised, activities that are part of their normal, daily routine. Only actual racing would’ve ceased for the remainder of the meet — now six days left — which is scheduled to end on June 23.
But Stronach said no, with support from the aforementioned horsemen’s groups.
“We are collectively working on behalf of everyone in the sport — grooms, hot walkers, jockeys, exercise riders, starters, trainers, owners, track managers, and every horse wearing a bridle and a saddle — to reform and improve racing every day,” the trio said in a joint statement via BloodHorse. “After extensive consultation among all partners, Santa Anita Park will stay open through the end of its meet to see these reforms through.”
To be fair, the number of horse deaths have declined sharply since the track was closed for much of March and new rules were implemented for the reopening on March 29. Seven fatalities have occurred since then, leading Stronach and the horsemen to conclude that racing is safer under the new protocols.
“To be clear, there are no acceptable losses, and every day we work toward ending all serous injuries,” the statement read. “But the reality is that our improvements and changes have been effective.”
Just not effective enough to change the perception. The slew of carcasses should be sufficient to raise questions about holding the Breeders’ Cup at the track on Nov. 1-2. Santa Anita is scheduled to host the prestigious event — the world championship of racing — for a record 10th time. However, the Breeders’ Cup committee meets later this month and could move the venue to Churchill Downs. A switch merits serious consideration.
In a statement via the Los Angeles Times, the CHRB said closing Santa Anita now “would provide the industry more time to fully implement announced safety initiatives and perhaps additional ones.”
That sounds like a reasonable request of Stronach, which also owns Maryland’s Pimlico Race Course (home of the Preakness Stakes) and Laurel Park (future home of the Preakness if left to the company).
If nothing else, forsaking the end of a season that began Dec. 26 would provide better optics. Squeezing in the last few days against the CHRB’s suggestion is a bad look, an apparent choice of dollars over horses.
That’s no way to show love for these magnificent creatures.
⦁ Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.
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