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?
Gill may feel unfairly targeted, but the fact 25 jockeys took a concerned stand against his treatment of horses, putting horses and riders at risk speaks volumes.
I am becoming increasingly convinced the sport needs a Commissioner like other professional sports. I recall at the Congressional hearing on drugs (steroids) last year there were members of the racing fraternity calling for just that.
There are far more good than bad in horse racing who care about everyone in it, including the horses.
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