The Good Die Young: Grappling with the Moral Ramifications of Horse Racing – Baltimore Magazine

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By Ron Cassie | May 2024
In the 10 days leading up to last year’s Kentucky Derby, seven horses at Churchill Downs were euthanized following training or racing-related injuries. By the time the Preakness went off two weeks later, there were two more fatalities on the grounds of the famed Louisville track. The cluster of deaths sparked headlines across the country, as had a spate of horses killed, ultimately 43, at California’s Santa Anita Park in 2019.
Nationally, the reports from Churchill Downs overshadowed a similar story down the road from historic Pimlico Race Course. From the start of Laurel Park’s 2023 racing calendar through the end of its May 7 spring meet, 13 thoroughbred horses had been euthanized at Maryland’s primary racing track.
The heightened media attention did not dissuade Bob Baffert, considered by many the greatest trainer ever, from flying four of his horses, including National Treasure, a Preakness favorite, and Havnameltdown, a top 3-year-old sprinter, from his Santa Anita base of operations to Baltimore. Havnameltdown did not run the longer Triple Crown distances, but he was the odds-on favorite for the $200,000 Chick Lang Stakes on the Preakness Day card.
It would be his first start after running a close second in the $1.5-million Saudi Derby three months before. Following his promising debut as a 2-year-old, he’d won four of his previous five races before his trip overseas. Leading nearly the entire seven furlongs in Riyadh, Havnameltdown had faded late, getting nosed at the line by Commissioner King as both jockeys went hard to the whip down the stretch.
Overall, Pimlico booked 13 races on Preakness Day last year. After the main event, the mid-afternoon Chick Lang event—named for the late Pimlico general manager known as “Mr. Preakness”—offered the day’s second-largest purse. In front of a crowd only half the size of pre-pandemic years, Havnameltdown broke flat-footed out of the gate and got bumped early. Once he found his stride, however, Havnameltdown established himself on the outside behind the front-running Ryvit. Gathering speed as the leaders thundered around the turn, he had just edged into first place when his left front leg snapped, sending his head down toward the track and jockey Luis Saez tumbling from his mount.
By the time equine veterinarians reached the reddish-brown colt, now staggering loose around the oval in a gruesome scene, his front left fetlock (“the ankle” of the horse) was openly separated. The disarticulation of bones at the joint was so severe that he could not humanely be transported from the track, and he was euthanized behind black curtains on the Pimlico dirt. Nearby fans gasped at the unfolding situation. (Taken to Sinai Hospital, Saez sustained only minor injuries.)
Animal rights protestors were on hand for Preakness, as they are for nearly every racing weekend in Maryland, and activist groups spoke out immediately as images of Havnameltdown’s horrific injury and euthanasia circulated. The Humane Society called for “sweeping reforms” in horse racing. PETA said Pimlico should have banned Baffert, whose license remained suspended in Kentucky since his 2021 Derby winner failed a post-race drug test, adding “the racing industry must kick out the bad guys.”
Havnameltdown was not on any illegal substances, however, according to his subsequent necropsy. Only legal amounts of officially prescribed medication were found in his system. He had also passed his mandatory veterinarian examinations after his morning workouts during the week without issue.
“Baffert is an easy target, and a suspension like his sends a message to the public, ‘We have corrupt trainers we have to weed out,’” says Patrick Battuello, who founded Horseracing Wrongs, a national anti-horse-racing nonprofit, in 2013. “But he’s no better or worse than the average trainer. He will have more deaths because he trains more horses.”
Havnameltdown was the 75th known horse to die in Baffert’s care between 2000 and 2021, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records. “A lot of his explanations are true about drug overages, that they’re miniscule, barely over the legal limit. That’s another thing that people sometimes conflate,” continues Battuello. “Drugging and doping are two different things. We’ll see things like cocaine and Viagra and caffeine, but that’s rare. I’m not defending Bob Baffert, mind you. It just distracts from the larger problem here.”
The larger problem is that 342 racehorses have been euthanized in Maryland over the past decade, mirroring an ongoing tragedy that plays out in Kentucky, California, New York, and across the country, with no end in sight.
Since 2014, according to Horseracing Wrongs, which pulls its figures from state racing commissions, at least 10,311 horses have been killed at U.S. tracks and training facilities (as of press time). The overwhelming majority, which may surprise casual fans, most likely never received any banned drugs. The so-called “sport of kings” is simply a rather brutal affair under current rules, with the inevitable injuries and killing of thoroughbreds accepted as the cost of luring fans to the betting window. Not in any other sport, of course, would the deaths of so many “athletes,” as the industry often refers to its racehorses, be tolerated.
So, why did Havnameltdown and Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, a local horse trained in Cecil County, whose shocking breakdown during the 2006 Preakness Stakes became a national saga—and thousands of other young thoroughbreds—end up dead?
That’s one question. But there are two more, all particularly relevant at the moment. Given the catastrophic injuries suffered by so many racehorses—combined with the drastic decline in attendance—should Maryland continue to subsidize horse racing with tax revenue generated from other legal gambling sources?
Currently, the state redirects upward of $80 million annually to prop up the horse-racing industry. It’s money that could conceivably go to public education, like other gambling revenue received by Maryland.
The second question is even bigger. Earlier this year, Gov. Wes Moore and the state reached a tentative agreement with the Stronach Group to take over the thoroughbred racing industry in Maryland. With less than a month remaining in the General Assembly, state legislators began considering a bill supported by Moore to purchase Laurel Park from the Stronach Group and assume control of Pimlico—and then close Laurel and move all thoroughbred racing to Baltimore.
The state plan has stalled since it was first considered back in 2020, but it has renewed momentum and if it doesn’t pass both houses and get signed into law this year, it will likely go forward next year, in time to be celebrated along with the 150th running of the Preakness.
Currently, the legislation calls for spending $400 million in bond money to overhaul the 19th-century-built Pimlico course, nicknamed “Old Hilltop” because of the rise in its infield. It’s the hope of the governor and Mayor Brandon Scott, among others, that shifting the entire thoroughbred calendar to Baltimore will generate economic development in its surrounding low-income Park Heights neighborhood. The overall impact of racing in the state is estimated at $572 million. It would seem a significant gamble by state officials to expect Maryland to break even, let alone turn a profit, at the venue in the coming years.
In the 15 years before COVID-19 hit in 2020, annual attendance fell 73 percent at Pimlico, while the amount of money wagered fell by an even greater amount—85 percent. At Laurel Park, both annual attendance and total bets fell 64 percent over the same period. Meanwhile, some 45 tracks in the U.S. have closed over the last two dozen years.
Animal rights activists also raise ethical dilemmas and the apparent hypocrisy of state ownership. Dog racing, they note, is already illegal in Maryland and 42 states (the only operating track is in West Virginia). The National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor ended its dolphin shows eight years ago, citing changing public opinion about animals kept in captivity for entertainment purposes, and Maryland is soon expected to become the eighth state to prohibit the use of animals in traveling circuses. Some observers believe horse-racing days are ultimately numbered as well. The proliferation of legal wagering on the NFL, NBA, and MLB, including at venues like the Camden Yards’ SuperBook Sports lounge—requiring merely a cell phone—would not seem to bode well for horse betting, either.
Stronach executive Craig Fravel told the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority last September that the company lost $10 million last year managing Laurel and Pimlico. Preakness alone lost a combined $4.8 million in 2022 and 2023, according to Fravel.
Forty-eight hours before last May’s Chick Lang Stakes, which is the cut-off time that racehorses in the U.S. are allowed to receive any sanctioned drugs, Havnameltdown was administered a two-gram intravenous injection of phenylbutazone, often referred to as “bute,” a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug for the short-term treatment of pain. He also received 500 milligrams of Adequan, an FDA-approved preventative, and treatment for, degenerative and traumatic arthritis in the limb joints of horses.
A weekly administration of Adequan, and a daily dose of Gastrogard, an approved paste for the treatment of ulcers, was a regular practice dating at least to the beginning of the year. (Nearly 100 percent of racehorses, because of the combination of heavy exercise and long periods in the stall, have ulcers.) Most likely, the regimen began earlier, after he was purchased for $200,000 in April 2022 when he turned two.
He also regularly was administered LASIX, a medication used to prevent respiratory bleeding in thoroughbreds, while training and racing at high speeds. This may be troubling to some people outside of horse racing, but it is within the rules and standard practice.
“Those medications help horses and have genuine preventive benefits,” says Dr. Kathryn Papp, an equestrian horse trainer who has family ties to Maryland. “Probably 85 to 90 percent of competitive horses receive them. They’re used with competitive equestrian horses, too. It’s only the cost that limits their use.”
However, the injection of corticosteroids into multiple joints four weeks prior to Preakness, Papp says, along with the use of sedatives during training—revealed in Havnameltdown’s drug and medical reports from California—raises a red flag.
“[The] use of corticosteroids tells us they suspected something was going on,” Papp says. But they did not know the extent of injuries. “Without diagnostic workup such as X-rays, CT or PET scans, anything you do to form a diagnosis, even a physical full exam, and you are just guessing the horse’s hocks are bothering them and to what extent.”
Similarly, the examination of Havnameltdown’s condition post-mortem revealed issues that may also be alarming to some horseracing outsiders. However, there was nothing extraordinary in the findings—other than osteoarthritis, severe degenerative joint disease, and bone cysts, which are holes in the bone, were found in all four limbs, not merely the fractured limb. Ultimately, that may be the most troubling thing of all, at least for those outside the horse-racing industry.
The report reads as such:

LEFT FRONT LIMB: Lateral condyle [the rounded end of the bone, which forms an articulation with another bone] fracture through a deep cyst [a fluid-filled hole in the bone]. Severe DJD [degenerative joint disease] characterized by bone cysts on both condyles of MC3; comminuted fracture of the medial sesamoid bone; severe tendon damage open fracture and disarticulated joint

 

RIGHT FRONT LIMB: Moderate to severe DJD [degenerative joint disease] characterized by bone cysts on both condyles of MC3; mild eb- urnation [degenerative process associated with osteoarthritis] to the intermediate carpal bone

 

LEFT HIND LIMB: Cartilage eburnation [de- generative process associated with osteoarthri- tis] and pitting of the hock [swelling behind the joint]. Moderate DJD [degenerative joint disease] of the fetlock joint characterized by bone cysts on both condyles of the MT3

 

RIGHT HIND LIMB: Cartilage eburnation [degenerative process associated with osteoar- thritis] and pitting of the hock [swelling behind the joint]. Moderate DJD [degenerative joint disease] of the fetlock characterized by bone cysts on both condyles of MT3

LEFT FRONT LIMB: Lateral condyle [the rounded end of the bone, which forms an articulation with another bone] fracture through a deep cyst [a fluid-filled hole in the bone]. Severe DJD [degenerative joint disease] characterized by bone cysts on both condyles of MC3; comminuted fracture of the medial sesamoid bone; severe tendon damage open fracture and disarticulated joint
 
RIGHT FRONT LIMB: Moderate to severe DJD [degenerative joint disease] characterized by bone cysts on both condyles of MC3; mild eb- urnation [degenerative process associated with osteoarthritis] to the intermediate carpal bone
 
LEFT HIND LIMB: Cartilage eburnation [de- generative process associated with osteoarthri- tis] and pitting of the hock [swelling behind the joint]. Moderate DJD [degenerative joint disease] of the fetlock joint characterized by bone cysts on both condyles of the MT3
 
RIGHT HIND LIMB: Cartilage eburnation [degenerative process associated with osteoar- thritis] and pitting of the hock [swelling behind the joint]. Moderate DJD [degenerative joint disease] of the fetlock characterized by bone cysts on both condyles of MT3
“Degenerative joint changes such as these are common in racing horses. Condylar fractures, such as this one, are often through bone cysts,” the report noted.
After Papp received a leaked copy of Havnameltdown’s necropsy, she tweeted it out and asked: “Who thinks these are appropriate in a 3yo racehorse?!” She added: “Vets would call this a racing time bomb.”
As you might expect, a long back and forth ensued between animal rights supporters and horse-racing industry defenders.
But Papp, who believes few owners are thinking about the long-term health and care of a racehorse when purchased, asks a good question. Whether eight holes in the bones of a 3-year-old horse is appropriate is subjective. Legally speaking, inevitable degenerative joint disease, bone cysts, gastrointestinal problems in still-maturing animals, and an estimated 2,000 euthanized U.S. racehorses each year, are not an issue. Neither are the estimated 7,500 U.S. thoroughbreds a year shipped to Mexico or Canada for slaughter and human consumption in other parts of the world, according to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
New technology may be presenting ways to mitigate the harm, however. At the Melbourne Cup, for example, CT scans became mandatory for competing horses after a high-profile death there, something Papp believes should be required in this country.
Before the Belmont Stakes last year, PETA also called for CT scans, citing the deaths at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, and referencing a two-year California Horse Racing Board study that found that roughly 90 percent of thoroughbreds that suffered catastrophic musculoskeletal injuries had pre-existing bone lesions and abnormalities at or near the site of the fracture.
The California study provided a powerful counterpoint to the notion long put forth by the industry that fractures were largely the result of a bad step or bad track. Portable PET, MRI, and imaging devices may provide early diagnosis assistance, and clearance help before races, but the cost and time involved remains prohibitive.
Unfortunately, two horses had to be euthanized at Belmont by the weekend’s end of the last leg of last year’s Triple Crown. The New York-bred Excursionniste suffered a catastrophic injury during the 13th and final race at Belmont Park on Saturday, the race that immediately followed the Belmont Stakes’ main event. On Sunday, Mashnee Girl, a 5-year-old mare, was then euthanized after she fell near the quarter pole. They were the third and fourth horses put down at Belmont since the start of its spring- summer meet a month earlier.
In 2012, the big budget HBO series Luck, set in the horse-racing world and starring Dustin Hoffman, was canceled shortly after a third horse was injured and euthanized in connection with the production of the series. Its pilot episode, directed by Michael Mann, had just aired three months before.
“The horse was on her way back to the stall when she reared, flipped over backwards, and struck her head on the ground,” Dr. Gary Beck, a California Horse Racing Board veterinarian, said in a statement afterward. An attending veterinarian determined that euthanasia was necessary. Dr. Rick Arthur, medical director of the state racing board, told the Associated Press that “such injuries occur in stable areas every year and are more common than thought.”
For animal rights activists, the isolation and confinement of racehorses, which can lead to the not-infrequent injuries that Arthur references, are another reason to demand reform and/or the outright banning of horse racing.
Bred for sport, the racehorses from a young age are often confined alone for up to 23 hours a day in 12-by-12-foot stalls. In testimony before the New York State Senate, equine veterinarian Dr. Kraig Kulikowski likened keeping a 1,000-pound juvenile horse confined to a stall to locking a 100-pound child in a four-by-four-foot closet for 23 hours a day.
“A 2-year-old horse is equivalent to a 6-year-old human; a 3-year-old horse is equivalent to a 9-year-old human,” said Kulikowki, noting that such confinement often leads to mental stress and behavior that can prevent thoroughbreds from being accepted into post-career boarding facilities. “Yet, the biggest races are for 3-year-olds. They still have their baby teeth. Their bones are not mature. Their brains are not mature…Most of these juveniles never see pasture or a moment of playtime once they start their racing career.”
Relatedly, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, an animal behaviorist and professor emeritus at Tufts University, told Baltimore that because of their unnatural training and confinement, a racehorse’s normal instincts are inhibited from proper expression, leading to mental and emotional issues. Though not displayed in most horses, it is also not unusual for that suffering to manifest in repetitive, compulsive be- havior, including what is known as “cribbing”—biting on its gate, for example, and contracting its neck muscles while pulling backward and grunting—or pacing, kicking, and even self-harm.
“Horses are social animals that live in a herd, and the longer racehorses are confined, the more stereotypies [compulsive behavior] they will exhibit,” Dodson says. “It’s similar to the behavior you will often see exhibited by any animal, or human being, for that matter, in solitary confinement.”
Meanwhile, Jennifer Sully, a Maryland organizer with Horseracing Wrongs, has been pulling together anti-horse-racing demonstrations most weekends at Laurel or Pimlico since 2018.
“I feel like most of the public genuinely doesn’t know what goes in horse racing, the extent of the cruelty,” says Sully as other protestors, including her mother, pass out informational literature in front of Pimlico on a recent Saturday afternoon.
“Several years ago, after the deaths at Santa Anita made headlines, there was a change in feeling among a lot of people,” continues Sully, amid the “horse cemetery” props placed in the median outside the track, Pimlico advertisements for the upcoming Preakness Stakes, and honks of encouragement. “And after last year, with deaths at all three Triple Crown events, there has been another turn, into even more positive direction [against horse racing].
“Most people, you know, their jaw hits the floor when I tell them that 27 horses were killed last year at Maryland tracks.”

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