Thursday, January 28, 2010

Michael Gill raises controversy over breakdowns

Last week's brief post on the carriage horse industry here in NYC raised the ire of more than one carriage industry participant, who claimed that their business driving horses two and fro among speeding motor vehicles is on the whole less dangerous and more humane to their equine charges than other competitive outlets, namely Thoroughbred horse racing. As I pointed out in my commentary on my commentary, at the Equine Reader my intent is not to vilify any single equine industry, but to provide discussion on the ins and the outs, the goods and the bads across the disciplines. As I have noted in previous posts, horse abuse, injury and death can result from participation in every equine sport, even ones as seemingly innocuous as Western Pleasure or competitive trail riding. I myself have witnessed show pen and training pen abuses, and have spoken out loud against them both in the moment and in retrospection here within the pages of this blog.

So to be fair, this post is going to highlight one of the darker controversies that has been brewing in the racing world this week, that of Michael Gill's temporary suspension from running horses at Penn National due to an allegedly high number of them having broken down while running and training at the track. This past Saturday night the Jockeys at Penn National came together and refused to ride in any further races with Gill's horses, claiming that being near or around them during a race was openly dangerous due to their propensity for going down. Ray Paulick, of the Paulick report, interviewed Gill extensively on his feelings about the matter, and reports that Gill feels unfairly targeted and singled out, and claims that the rate of breakdowns in his horses is no higher than that of other trainers. Gill even made a similar claim to that of the carriage owners contesting my recent post, that his safety and inspection record is stellar, and perhaps even surpasses that of other trainers in similar circumstances. How that claim is expected to eclipse the fact that seven of his horses broke down in 2009 is unknown to me.

So the reality here is that yes, this man is coming up for sanction due to the deaths of innocent equines that he kept in his charge. This type of situation is bad business all around for the racing industry, which already holds the perception of being an enterprise that frequently leads to catastrophic injuries to and deaths of its equine participants. Whether Michael Gill's safety record is worse than the average matters less to me than what racing as a whole will decide to do about the issue. It's hard as an equine advocate to thrill to the championships of the Rachels and Zenyattas when I know there's a Memorial Wall out there dedicated to the deaths of horses that have come before. And my romantic visions of foals frolicking in Kentucky bluegrass don't jive with the potential for their breaking down two or three years later. Which is in itself a real shame, because when one is watching a horse that is truly built to run and does her job with the obvious heart and dedication displayed by the pinnacle runners in the sport, it's a rush like no other.

As participant in an industry that loves its horses, and lives for its horses, I hope that racing will take a real stand this time around and get solid legislation underway that will increase regulations in training and racing and redouble existing efforts to identify at risk horses before they hit the overrun point. Science and veterinary medicine can provide real clues to a horse's breakdown risk, and it seems that better standards could be implemented to screen horses, especially at the claiming levels, and ensure their fitness to participate. If the USEF can legislate over NSAIDs, I would think American TB racing could legislate over breakdowns.

Am I dreaming an impossible dream?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Can science predict who the winner will be?

The game of Thoroughbred horse racing has always required part background knowledge and part luck to be applied when reckoning which horse in a field will end up besting its competitors. That horse's owners likely applied a similar combination of know-how with hope when they selected it at auction from among a similar selection of yearlings or two-year-olds, its breeders mixed good pedigree choices with a bit of faith when they contracted that horse into creation. But what if science could show us exactly what a racehorse was capable of achieving in its career? What if a simple genetic test could weed out the sprinters from the marathoners, and the Zenyattas from the horses that never break out of back of the pack?

As reported, scientists of the University of Dublin announced last week that such testing is actually in the works. By identifying variants of the "muscle mass-regulating myostatin gene" it has become possible to "predict a horse's optimum racing distance." For 1000 euros ($1400) and a blood sample, owners can now tell whether their horse's myostatin levels will equip it best to sprint, run middle distances, or go long in marathons. The scientists are quick to point out, however, that this is not a test to determine future champions; it is meant to determine "'what your horse is good at, not how good he will be.'" So perhaps we are not yet on the threshold of quickly identifying the next Rachel Alexandra from a crop of foals, but we can at least determine which crops should be matched against one another. Still a pretty impressive step forward, and the first ever test for Thoroughbreds that correlates genetic variability with athletic potential.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

NYC Entities Discussing Carriage Horse Welfare reported today that "the co-president of NYCLASS, Steve Nislick, joined the ASPCA and a panel of experts to discuss the welfare of horses. Naturally, the discussion turned to New York's carriage horse industry, which they would like to replace with a fleet of antique electric cars. On the state of the horse's welfare, Nislick said: '"They provide them with no protection. If I don't give a horse water for 12 hours, I've done nothing wrong. The minimum requirement in NY State is you have to give a horse water once every 12 hours. Does that make sense to anybody?"'

It's good to see that there is finally some real discussion taking place on this issue. The time has long since passed when the horse and carriage became a redundant mode of transport in NYC. The dangers of collisions between horses and the modern shuffle of urban life are too great, and too frequent to allow the carriage industry to continue operating in Manhattan. Not to mention the sometimes deplorable living conditions that these animals exist under when not "on the clock."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Little Filly That Could

Well it's official, the TB industry has named 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra 2009 Horse of the Year. The announcement came at last night's Eclipse Awards in California, and the prize was hotly contested with west-coastal rival Zenyatta. Rachel also won Champion 3-Year-Old Female and Zenyatta won Champion older female. According to, this was the first year in history that both HOY contenders were female. It's been a storied year for the fillies, and certainly gives new meaning to the challenge "Run Like a Girl"!!

Congratulations to Rachel Alexandra's camp, and Zenyatta's, as both horses were well deserving of the honor. And here's to the exciting possibility of their eventually going head to head next year! To view the Blood's wonderful slide show of the winning Medaglia D'Oro daughter, click here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Horse of the Year!

The biggest debate in the Thoroughbred racing world will officially be settled tonight when the Horse of the Year is awarded at the Eclipse Awards in California. Throughout much of the season industry insiders have argued over which horse is the most deserving: either Zenyatta, the dominant winner of 14 straight races, including the Breeder's Cup; or Rachel Alexandra, the breakout sensation who bested males and females on a variety of surfaces during her infamous 2009 campaign. To be honest my vote is with Zenyatta, though I think Rachel is the cuter, and sassier of the two ladies. Zenyatta's massive win in the Breeder's Cup, coming from behind to clear the field of all doubt as to her mastery, and accomplishing an unparalleled feat in being the first mare to win the Classic, puts her in the top spot to claim the HOY prize. Besides, Rachel has her four-year-old year to look forward to, and could also become a contender next season.

But perhaps even BIGGER news is that of Zenyatta's confirmed return to racing next year. Trainer John Sherrifs has indicated that his camp might be interested in seeing whether Zenyatta could turn in a repeat performance in next year's Breeder's Cup and win the storied race twice in a row. Zenyatta's won't run in the Dubai World Cup, but giving her another season at the races might reopen the possibility of a match-up with Rachel Alexandra. The horse's owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, are also considering running Zenyatta on non-synthetic tracks, opening up a wide swath of opportunities for the mare to prove her prowess all across the world. Sounds like 2010 will be an exciting one for the ladies!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Aid for Haiti, and Haiti's horses

As the crisis in Haiti mounts, it is clear that the country's residents have been thrust overnight into a long term nightmare. The earthquake that rocked Port-Au-Prince reduced this already poverty stricken nation to an environment in which sheer survival is the sole goal and a catastrophic loss of life will be the likely end result. Aid is steadily pouring in from across the world, but the country's infrastructure has very literally been reduced to rubble and its citizens are left with naught but open fields in which to congregate. Should anyone wish to donate money to the relief effort there are already a variety of channels open with which to do so. I picked the text message method, sending money to the Red Cross by texting "HAITI" to "90999" and having it billed to my cell phone bill.

In a time of such intense human crisis, it can seem almost indulgent to consider the animals affected by such a great disaster. But as reports, veterinary aid units to care for Haiti's horses, livestock and domestic animal populations have also been mobilized and can hopefully work to prevent a widescale die out of Haiti's livestock. This is in truth not an issue entirely about animal welfare - of course saving animals from suffering is a worthy goal in itself, but Haiti's economy relies heavily on its agricultural base, and large loss to its animal population may well impact the income reaped from its agribusiness. So while Haiti's horses and livestock might be a relatively low level concern at this stage of the tragedy, neglecting them could have far reaching implications against Haiti's capacity to eventually restore and rebuild. On that note, I send my hopes and best wishes to everyone working to assist the Haitians as they try to move through this devastating time.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dark and Light in the Equine Industry

One of the downsides of being a committed member of the equine industry is learning the hard way that not everyone within the business cherishes the opportunity to work amongst their equine counterparts. As if it isn't enough that stories already abound of random/senseless acts of horse abuse perpetrated by those outside the industry, this week brings news that Thoroughbred owner and trainer Chad Moore is being arraigned on charges of cruelty and animal abandonment for the "alleged abandonment and maltreatment" of several horses on his Clermont County, OH farm. Two of the horses have been euthanized due to the severity of their malnourishment, and several others remain in protective care at a rehabilitative center. What makes this story particularly unsettling for me is that it happened within a stone's throw of my hometown (Cincinnati) and thus puts a personal point on a story that seems to have been repeated over and over in these past two economically stressed years. Is there anything more heartrending to a horselover than to learn of instances in which the people who have elected to own horses turn out to be the very same people doing their charges real harm?

So what is to be done? I suppose horse husbandry, just like human nature in general, will always have a dark side. Perhaps the key then is to use those stories as an impetus to work even harder at equine advocacy. It helps with maintaining a positive outlook when one remembers that for every person out there proving in some dastardly way that they cannot be trusted to promote the welfare of their horses, there are many others fighting tirelessly to do just that. Last week, for instance, also saw the announcement of a new web site devoted to "outing" those who have been charged with horse soring violations when exhibiting gaited horses. The Friends of Sound Horses Organization has consolidated all violations of the Horse Protection Act from 1986 forward, so that those looking to show their gaited horses or find reputable trainers can view lists of soring offenders. An excellent example of members of the equine industry coming together to protect the animals that they love. Their doing so reminds me that every voice counts in the fight for equine welfare, and that by speaking out I am adding mine to the light side.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Britain announces "Racing for Change" to unify marketing and PR

My ultimate career aspiration is to work in marketing or communications for an equestrian oriented organization, either a large stud farm, a racing or training entity, an auction house or a breed organization. I am thus always keeping my eyes open for ways that equine organizations, many of which seem grossly behind the times in terms of keeping with modern social media, can enhance their marketing platforms in the landscape of the digital age in a way that also speaks to the up and comers in the market - Gen X, Gen Y and the "Millenials." I have already written about what makes Three Chimneys' marketing campaigns so compelling, and am currently working with a team of marketers at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to redesign their web, email and print campaigns so that they can synchronize and engage the collaborative power of digital marketing.

It was with great interest, therefore, that I read on of a new initiative under way in Britain called "Racing for Change." Through a variety of tactics, the British horse racing industry is seeking to unify its marketing and promotional strategies to make racing accessible and interesting to casual fans and fans new to the sport, many of them members of younger generations who are ripe to become lifelong supporters. The initiative will feature several key elements, many of which could go a long way towards increasing support for and engagement in horse racing here in the States as well.

Those tenets of the Racing for Change platform that could be particularly well utilized in American horse racing marketing include:

  • "Race names to be simplified and racecourse announcements to be streamlined.
  • "Racecourses to improve the enjoyment and understanding of a day at the races for both new and regular racegoers. Initiatives include improved food and drink provision, new sales and marketing promotions (including more free and discounted days), enhanced raceday information with an emphasis on improving the quality of showmanship during the day. Improvements are also being planned in the use of on-course TV and the betting experience."
  • "Starting a new free membership club for younger adults that will offer discounted admission to many courses and shares in several racehorses."
  • "Launching a new Web site to promote horse racing to new and novice customers."
  • "A central public relations campaign to promote racing more effectively to a wider audience."
The last one in particular, a centralized public relations campaign for all of horse racing, is something that the U.S. lacks completely. Every racing entity is responsible for its own promotion because we do not have one key body responsible for oversight of the industry. It is particularly necessary that the U.S. racing industry contemplate implementing similar changes, because it has suffered grievously in the last decade from waning interest, grave economic concerns, and a swath of bad press resulting from scandals as diverse as the Eight Belles tragedy to the Pagallo neglect and abuse case. Perhaps if Racing for Change spurs an uptick in new fans for Britain's industry, American horse racing proponents might see fit to institute similar initiatives.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Happy New Year for Adoptable Horses

One of the many equine causes that I hold close to my heart is that of the adoptable Thoroughbred. Off track TBs, once properly rehabilitated, can go on to have illustrious competitive careers in other disciplines, or simply become cherished riding horses and equine family members. There are a wide variety of non-profit entities across the country that raise the funds to care for and retrain to these horses, and continue to work tirelessly even in today's economy to provide them aftercare and a new lease on life.

One of the most influential, with a nationwide reach, is the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation based in Saratoga Springs, NY. TRF runs rehabilitation centers all over the country, and many of them utilize correctional facility inmates in the retraining process, providing a dual benefit to both horse and human communities. I currently volunteer with this organization and support their marketing and fundraising endeavors whenever I can be of service. It was with particular interest, therefore that I read that TRF founder Monique Koehler will be awarded with a Special Eclipse Award on January 18th to recognize her devotion to the rehabilitation and adoption of ex-racehorses. Congratulations to Monique and TRF for 28 years of advocating for retired TBs.

On a similar note, the Thoroughbred Placement and Rescue organization, based in Marlboro, MD, reported to that it successfully secured placement for 123 off-track TBs in 2009. That's 123 horses that will be starting this new year on the right hoof. TPR, and a variety of other facilities, use the free horse adoption placement service provided by to help with its efforts. 2009 was such tumultuous year for most Americans, and for the American TB industry, that it is inspiring to hear news that these horses will entering 2010 with a bright future ahead of them.