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Horse racing in Western PA draws both criticism and support

By: Zoe Esperseth

As Dawnelle Mock walks through the paddocks where the standardbred racehorses are kept before they are set to compete, she lovingly reflects on the amount of care received by the horses.

“They eat breakfast before we do, they get lunch before we do. These guys get a lot of care and attention.”

Dawnelle Mock serves as both Marketing Director of the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association, and as a part of a family who have been caring for standardbred horses for generations. With a family horse farm in Hickory, PA, as well as horses housed at the Meadows for racing, she has been a long-time lover of horses and has grown up in the standardbred racing industry at the Meadows.

Horses are an important part of the Pennsylvania economy, according to the Pennsylvania Equine Council, who found that horses contribute approximately $3.3 billion to the state economy. A large portion of this revenue comes from the horse racing sector, which accumulates about $860 million in revenue. But while racing generates a significant amount of money, the industry has been shrouded in controversy for the injuries and deaths of horses on the track, especially in the field of thoroughbred racing. As 2019 draws to a close, the number of horses who have died on the tracks of popular Pennsylvania racetracks has come under scrutiny as the topic of abuse in the industry is amplified by changing legislation and public outcry.

Pennsylvania is home to a total of six horse racing tracks. The tracks are divided into two divisions, standardbred racing and thoroughbred racing. On February 23, 2016 a new bill was signed into law by Governor Tom Wolfe. This bill, commonly referred to as Act 7, established new reforms to the industry, including the creation of separate commissions for standardbred and thoroughbred horses.

Mock explains that there are slight differences between standardbred and thoroughbred horses, both in physicality and temperament.

“Standardbreds are usually stouter, whereas thoroughbreds are usually more sleek,” Mock said. “That’s why thoroughbreds can usually run a lot faster, sometimes at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, and standardbreds can usually reach speeds of about 35 miles an hour. And with standardbreds, these guys are usually very sweet, they love care and attention. All horses each have their own personalities, but thoroughbreds are sometimes a little more ornery, where standardbreds are often sweet and affectionate.”

Horse racing in Pennsylvania is represented by the State Horse Racing Commission and falls under the Department of Agriculture. Their website states, “Pennsylvania boasts one of the best racing programs in the country. The commonwealth is home to six state-of-the-art racing and gaming complexes and hosts harness racing at 16 agricultural county fairs.”

But while the State Racing Commission is confident in the impact of this reform, the industry is still often criticized for putting horses into an environment that may be unethical. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) representative Danielle Solberg argues that horses being put in mortal danger for the sake of entertainment is morally unjustifiable.

“In the case of horse racing – behind the romanticized facade of thoroughbred horse racing, is a world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns and slaughter. Horses are running for their lives,” Solberg said.

Author David Wenner of Penn Live, found that at Penn National, a thoroughbred racing track in central Pennsylvania,  the rates of fatal breakdowns per 1,000 starts was 1.84. The number of deaths at Penn National from 2014-2018 can be visualized in this chart, noting that deaths decreased substantially after 2014 and then remained stagnant from then on.

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According to Lauren Koivula, representative from the Humane Society of the United States, one of the most prominent causes of horse abuse in the racing industry stems from the use of performance enhancing drugs given to horses before races.“We are working with the racing industry to improve the lives of horses,” Koivula said. “We’re currently working on legislation with the jockey club to reduce the use of substances in the racing industry to improve the lives of the horses working in the industry.”

Jockey Club Director of Communications Shannon Luce says her organization puts their support behind the Horse Racing Integrity Act, a bill which would place heavy reforms on the racing industry to prevent the drugging of racehorses.

“[This bill] would reform medication use and establish a national anti-doping authority operating under the auspices of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and independent equine experts,” Luce said. “The authority would be responsible for developing and administering a nationwide anti-doping and medication control program for horse racing. USADA is the same congressionally approved organization that governs the medication program for the nation’s Olympic athletes.”

Before being eligible to race, horses must undergo a veterinary exam conducted by the state. Drug testing is also a requirement and can be conducted in a variety of ways according to Seth Dowling and Ashley Eisenbiel, who both work for the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association.

“There’s out of competition testing, horses can be tested at any time as long as they are registered racehorses. They are also tested before and after races,” Dowling and Eisenbiel said.

And while organizations like PETA argue that the practice of racing negatively impacts the health of horses, Dowling and Eisenbiel believe that both standardbred and thoroughbred horses are born needing an engaging activity like racing, so they don’t become bored.

“It’s like when you have a dog, different breeds have different activity levels and they need something to do,” Dowling and Eisenbiel said. “It’s the same for different breeds of horses. Many are bred to pull things, they’re itching to go, they want to run, thoroughbreds especially. They are very excited to do something. They like racing against each other, they are competitive and spirited. They also receive lots of care and love, before races they get massages and acupuncture.”

Dr. Brian Burks, a veterinarian who works at Fox Run Equine Center in Apollo, PA, knows that caring for a horse is no small feat.

“Some breeds, particularly the thoroughbred need to be fed differently to keep weight on them- more hay, more protein. They are a leaner breed, but still should not be showing ribs, being able to count them from a distance,” Dr. Burks said.

A number of procedures are required to keep a horse healthy and active. This includes feeding and stall cleaning twice daily, grooming, annual vaccinations, twice yearly deworming and more. These requires a heavy degree of responsibility and are often quite costly. Along with these basic caregiving responsibilities, Dr. Burks notes that horse caregivers need to recognize the necessary physical and emotional requirements that come with properly taking care of a horse.

“Equine injuries are more apt to be life-threatening and need to be dealt with quickly,” Dr. Burks said. “They are very social and require interaction from other horses/animals, or at least human beings. They also require dental care; they tend to live longer than other livestock, so they need good teeth to crush and grind food.”

According to a study conducted in 2018 by the Equine Veterinary Journal, the average age of thoroughbred racehorses in Pennsylvania who experience a sudden death on the track is 5.7 years. This study examined the sudden deaths of thoroughbred racehorses on an international scale, with Pennsylvania being one of the primary targets of study. The horses who were chosen for study experienced a sudden death on a thoroughbred racetrack and were examined for a cause

of death. In Pennsylvania, a total of 22 horses were examined post-mortem. Sixteen died from a pulmonary hemorrhage, two died from an idiopathic extra-pulmonary vascular rupture and the other four deaths were unexplained.

Ann Swinker, emeritus professor of equine science at Penn State and member of the American Horse Council, recognizes that horses can be left with mental damage as the result of abuse.

“Their memories are longer than ours,” Swinker said. “When humans are faced with trauma they have the ability to try and forget. Horses cannot forget. They can recognize companion animals that they’ve been separated from for eight or nine years. They don’t forget as easily as we can, we can put things out of our minds, but they can’t.”

Mindy James knows all too well the effect that Swinker describes. James is the Vice President at Whiskey Acres, a horse rescue sanctuary in Homer City, PA.

“One horse was abused by an Amish man, so anytime an Amish man comes out or someone with a beard, you can tell it affects her, she’s different,” James said.

While the racing industry continues to contend with controversy over the deaths and injuries of racehorses, Dowling and Eisenbiel are optimistic about the continuing popularity of the industry.

“It’s a historic pastime, it’s amazing how many people would come and watch back in the day. It was America’s first national pastime. Now we’re seeing it’s a fun trend for millennials, they like to come out and relive the history of the sport. It’s something everyone can get involved in.”

One of the horses kept in the barn near the track.
Horses kept in the paddocks next to the racetrack, lined up according to their race heat.
Horses kept in the paddocks next to the racetrack, lined up according to their race heat.
The drivers lead their horses to the track to jog them before the race.
A state representative watches the horses at the Meadows warm up before a race.
Penalties of blood test failure posted at the Meadows.

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