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Horseracing Wrongs Founder Patrick Battuello dismisses federal safety measures as "smoke and mirrors"

Patrick Battuello
Photo provided
Patrick Battuello

The summer meet at Saratoga Race Course is coming to a close on Labor Day.

The 2022 meet arrived in July as new racing industry regulations were going into effect, overseen by the federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority.

Designed to create a uniform set of safety standards, HISA’s Racetrack Safety Program went into effect in July. In January of 2023, the Anti-Doping Medication and Control Program will go into effect.

The New York Racing Association, which operates tracks at Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga, advocated for the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which passed in 2020.

But Horseracing Wrongs, a group that tracks on-track and training deaths across the country, dismisses the safety reforms for a sport it condemns. In 2022, 11 equine deaths have been recorded at Saratoga Race Course during the spring training season and summer meet.

WAMC’s Lucas Willard asked Patrick Battuello, founder of Horseracing Wrongs, to share his thoughts on the new safety protocols under HISA.

HISA, in a short phrase, is smoke and mirrors. It's no different than what's been going on in the industry for years.

They, whenever there's a spotlight on the industry in a negative way, they come out with all kinds of promises, safety protocols, new reforms, promising that equine welfare is their top priority, and nothing changes.

So here in New York, to bring it back locally, in 2012, there were a string of deaths at Aqueduct, in the winter of 2012. And Governor Cuomo convened a task force, which eventually led to  supposed it reforms and NYRA is fond of saying that they have the safety standards….set the standards, I'm sorry…for the country at large, and nothing has changed. The three NYRA tracks, Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga averaged 75 kills per year, and in the past two full calendar years, 2020, 2021, 83 and 76 deaths respectively, above the historical average. So again, nothing changes.

And it's the same around the country. They can't stop the killing, because it's built in to what they do, mostly because of the way they're bred and when they're first forced onto the track, long before their bodies are mature. I see time and again in states to give me full necropsy reports – four, three, two-year-old horses. These are pubescents dying with chronic conditions like osteoarthritis, and degenerative joint disease. This is a clear indication of the incessant pounding these horses are forced to endure. That's why they break down, that's why they die. So it's very important for your listeners to understand that HISA is just the latest example and the most public example of these promises that never lead anywhere.

Do you think there could be any kind of industry, state, or federal regulations that could curb injuries in the horse racing industry?

Well, the question Lucas, is how to what ends to how much could occur? Yes, of course, there are things that could be done that will mitigate the killing somewhat, but not in any significant fashion. Again, we're averaging over 120 deaths in New York State annually, and Saratoga 15 deaths every summer. So where's the improvement that they have promised over the years?

Again, we're saying that the killing is built-in. And even if they were to, even if they were to somehow half the death rate, which is pie in the sky, will never happen. We are telling you that over 2, 000 horses are dying at US tracks every year, that's six every single day. So even if they were to have that to three deaths a day, or 1,000 per year, is that acceptable? In 21st century America? For, let's remind everyone, two dollar bets and frivolous entertainment. Are we okay with killing horses for those reasons?

2022 is looking to be a record summer at Saratoga. The there's a lot of jobs that depend on the racetrack and all the businesses that support the racetrack, the hospitality industry, the breeding industry, and then also local governments, which were counting on a record season after a couple of really tough years from the pandemic. So, you know, do you have a plan or any suggestions about what should be done to fill the gap if racing were to end or to be curtailed in some way?

Well, personally, I love the Saratoga Region for reasons other than the horse racing. It's a wonderful historical place. We have to remember that Saratoga is truly an anomaly measured against the rest of the industry. It's one of three or four tracks in the country that are self-sustaining, they draw on their own. The rest of them are being propped up by massive corporate welfare, here in New York State $230 million a year is going to prop up the hors racing industry. If not for this corporate welfare, 9  of the 11 tracks would have closed 15 years ago. These are facts, including Aqueduct by the way. Saratoga obviously is self-sustaining and Belmont because it has the Belmont Stakes would probably survive without these subsidies.

But that's really important to note. Saratoga is the crown jewel of U.S. racing. It has been brilliantly marketed by NYRA, by Saratoga. It's set in an in an affluent area. It proudly builds itself the oldest sporting venue in the nation going back to the Civil War. So for these reasons, it's a tough nut to crack.

But it's very important that your listeners understand that the horses there are being abused in the same way horses are across the country. They're kept in stalls for over 23 hours a day, which I have expert testimony on our website, horseracingwrongs.org attesting to the fact that this is torturous for these animals. These are social herd animals being locked in a stall for 23 hours a day. A prominent equine vet, back in 2019, testified before the New York State Senate saying that that's like keeping a child in a four by four closet for that amount of time. They are drugged and doped obviously, just like every other horse, they are whipped in full public view.

Imagine if we were to whip a dog in the park, what would happen? That person would be arrested for animal cruelty but at the track, it's part of the tradition. And something that we are trying to educate the public more on a lot of the paraphernalia that these horses are forced to endure, including these chunks of metal in their mouths that are called bits. I recently shared some photos of horses at Saratoga with a retired Tufts professor whose specialty is in the horse’s ear, nose and throat. He wrote a devastating statement which again can be found on our website, saying that these horses are feeling like they're suffocating running with these bits in their mouths. Horses are nose breathers, and in the wild, they would keep a tight seal of their mouths, not let air in. These bits don't allow that, in addition to the pain that this that it's causing in the horse's mouth. He likens it to waterboarding, that's what these horses are experiencing. And all racehorses, Saratoga and everywhere, run with these bits. So that's a cruelty that most people don't understand. And so we're just asking the Capital Region to rethink their choices. And there are plenty of things to do in the summer time. And, again, connect the dots. If you support Saratoga Race Course you are supporting animal cruelty and animal killing. These are facts.

New York Racing Association spokesperson Patrick McKenna provided a statement in response:

NYRA’s organizational commitment to equine safety coupled with significant capital investments in our racing services and facilities, has ensured that serious equine injuries remain exceedingly rare at Saratoga Race Course.

As we approach Labor Day, the summer meet has included 393 races featuring more than 3,000 horses. Three of those 3,000 horses have suffered catastrophic injuries during live racing. On the training side, there have been roughly 8,000 timed workouts since the summer meet opened on July 14th. Of those 8,000 timed workouts, four horses have unfortunately suffered catastrophic injuries during morning training.

As always, the circumstances around these incidents are closely reviewed by NYRA in conjunction with the Gaming Commission and the New York State Equine Medical Director.

While there is always more work to prevent all serious equine injuries, more than 99.9% of all races and high speed workouts this summer have been conducted safely and without incident. NYRA prioritizes safety and integrity above all other considerations and continuously evaluates all aspects of the operation to provide the safest possible environment for training and racing. And as a nonprofit whose core responsibility is to safely conduct thoroughbred racing, NYRA has invested tens of millions of dollars in recent years on renovations and improvements to our racing and training facilities with an eye on enhancing safety.

In addition, NYRA has led the way in implementing emerging technologies that provide our veterinarians with even more data that can be utilized to prevent injuries before they occur. So the opponents of horseracing who seek to end the sport in New York are certainly entitled to their opinion, but they're not entitled to their own set of facts. The fact is that thoroughbred racing in New York State and here at Saratoga Race Course is safer today than at any point in recent history.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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