In New York on June 1, a group of 150 protesters greeted race-goers for the third leg of thoroughbred racing’s premier series with signs saying, “The final finish line for racehorses is the slaughterhouse” and “Horse-racing kills horses.”

The protests didn’t deter people from entering Belmont Park. But their slogans are attracting more support in the racing world and media.

Stories flooded the news as 29 horses died this past winter at the Santa Anita track alone. The track closed temporarily as experts tried to determine the cause. Most pointed to unusual rainfalls causing track problems.

In March the U.S. Jockey Club issued a white paper calling for the racing industry to “aggressively pursue” changes to protect the horses and the integrity of the sport. The paper states: “A key to this change is the requirement of full transparency into the medical treatment, injuries, and health of all racehorses. Today, we can’t fully see what is going on with a horse because of differing state and track practices, antiquated practices, and purposeful deceit about what drugs are given to horses at what times.”

The jockeys support a federal bill that would create a private, independent horse racing anti-doping authority (HADA) responsible for developing and administering a nationwide anti-doping and medication control program for horse racing.

H.R. 1754 has 120 co-sponsors, including two from Northern Virginia: Reps. Don Beyer, D-Arlington; and Gerry Connolly, D-Fairfax.

National Geographic reported 493 thoroughbreds died at American racetracks in 2018, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database.

Most deaths traditionally go unnoticed. The tracks refer euphemistically to the horses as “breaking down.” When celebrity horses break down — as the mighty Ruffian in 1975 or the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro — this issue is raised momentarily.

As does the celebrity racer who ends up in the slaughterhouse. There are so many horses bred to race they become a disposable commodity. The common estimate is 10,000 of them are crudely crammed into trailers and shipped to Mexico and Canada annually for their meat. The most famous example is Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner and subsequent victor in the prestigious Breeder’s Cup who was slaughtered in Japan — probably for dog food.

Virginia has ties to thoroughbred racing as the birthplace of the great Secretariat. Racing returns to the Commonwealth in August at Colonial Downs in New Kent. Will horses die there? Probably.

Standard recommendations to decrease the likelihood of racing fatalities include: decrease drugging, limit their racing schedule, and start horses late. Justify, the disqualified Derby winner this year, originally made headlines because he hadn’t raced until he was 3 years old. Horses are allowed to race as young as two years old.

Protesters would argue for ending racing because people have no right to endanger animals for their entertainment. America’s big circuses gave up using elephants in their shows because of enduring objections. Will the sight of beautiful horses thundering down the track eventually go the same way?

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