Under Sunday’s rain, Ellen Harris of Guilderland stood near the entrance to Saratoga Race Course holding a sign that read, “Horse racing is animal cruelty.”
Harris said she was “ashamed” of herself because she hosted family members from Virginia and Westchester County who were in the area in part to attend a State University of New York at Brockport alumni festival at the race course on Friday.
It was the same day a race horse was euthanized on the track after suffering an injury from a fall.
“I’m going to tell them they’re not welcome to stay, to come to the track next year, even though I love seeing them,” said Harris, who added the relatives were also in town to celebrate her mother’s 86th birthday Saturday.
Harris said she also felt bad the family had dinner at a nearby restaurant.
“By supporting the businesses that support horse racing, it’s just wrong,” she said.
Harris was one of about two dozen demonstrators who turned out to decry the sport as a form of animal cruelty.
The group highlighted 53 deaths of horses this year at tracks around the state, including three at Saratoga Race Course, and what the protesters said were “cruel and deadly racing practices.”
They also contested the $220 million the industry receives in annual subsidies.
Most of the stream of race-goers ignored the protesters. Some motorists honked their horns, yelling for the demonstrators to “get lives” or “get jobs.”
Several attendees told The Daily Gazette they felt the protesters were wasting their time.
However, Patrick Battuello, president and founder of Horseracing Wrongs, called the entire Saratoga Race Course experience a charade.
“All of this — the food, the drink, the party — rests on a foundation of animal cruelty and animal killing,” Battuello said.
History indicates 15 horses will die at the venue this summer, he said.
“Worse yet, research shows that the majority of the horses racing today will land in ‘equine hell,’ the slaughterhouse, at career’s end,” Battuello said.
“And so the question for all who bet on these races, for all who come through these turnstiles, is really quite simple,” he said. “Is that OK? Are you comfortable with horses being whipped, killed and slaughtered for your entertainment?”
While it’s presented “as just another sport,” horse racing is no different, and, because of the slaughterhouse component, it’s arguably worse than greyhound racing, which is prohibited in 41 states on moral grounds, Battuello said.
By the end of next year, there will only be two dog tracks left in the country, said Battuello.
Battuello said the demonstrators weren’t interested in reforms because they don’t believe the industry can be fixed.
The mistreatment of horses involves drugging, but chiefly concerns breeding them for speed, with big torsos, spindly legs and fragile ankles, the protester said.
The horses are first put to work long before their bodies are mature, he said.
“A typical horse matures at 6,” Battuello said. “These horses are put on the track, in intensive training at 18 months.”
Because of how often they race, he said that repetitive stress injuries eventually turn into full-blown breakdowns.
On top of that, they’re confined in 12- by 12-foot stalls more than 23 hours a day, which is counter to their natural state as social, herd-oriented animals, the demonstrator said.
A typical horse’s racing career lasts 4 to 7 years, after which they are “retired.” He estimated that thousands of horses are slaughtered annually.
But to 68-year-old Joanne Killian of South Glen Falls, who’s been coming to the race course since age 12, the demonstrators’ message fell on deaf ears.
“Well, it’s enjoyable,” she said. “I love watching the horses run. And I think it’s a sport that they’re trying to regulate in terms of the owners and trainers that are drugging horses and stuff. So I do think it’s become more safe.”
Dianne Thompson of Brockport said she used to own a thoroughbred that raced at Saratoga Race Course and at Belmont. It was retired after a leg injury.
Thompson said the horse was then put into a program called New Vocations. It takes in, rehabs and adopts retired racehorses.
“Ours was rehabbed in Kentucky at a palatial estate a woman had donated,” Thompson said. “He was there for seven months, and we went down there to visit him. He remembered both of us and nuzzled with us.”
Upon adoption, the new owner is required to turn in a report about the horse’s progress to New Vocations every three months for three years, she said, adding their their horse was adopted by an equine veterinarian out of Virginia Tech and it has “just a paradise life.”
Her husband, Larry Eaton, said it’s wrong to characterize the entire industry as a form of animal cruelty.
“There’s some mistreatment, but on a whole they’re treated very well,” Eaton said. “And you can go within 20 miles of here and find rehab places and people who are trying to adopt the horses.”
Eaton asserted the protesters couldn’t recognize that the horses wouldn’t have been born were it not for breeding for the sport.
NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna later issued a statement in response to the accusations from the protesters indicating that the “health and welfare of horses and jockeys competing at NYRA tracks is our highest priority” and that NYRA continuously evaluates all aspects of the operation to do that.
He said NYRA is committed to “science-driven best practices” for racing surfaces and facilities for horses and humans
“To meet this goal, NYRA has made significant capital investments in recent years to upgrade and modernize the facilities where we operate,” McKenna said. “That commitment and investment has produced results. In 2020, for example, nearly 99.9 percent of the 1,507 races and 43,627 high speed workouts were completed safely and without incident.
“NYRA’s organizational commitment to safety sets the industry standard,” McNamara said. “We advocated strongly for the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act and look forward to working with our industry partners on implementing the reforms we have long supported and advanced. That includes a national approach to medication control and the strongest anti-doping authority the sport has ever seen, which will further modernize horse racing at a critical juncture in its history.”
Editor’s Note: Updated with NYRA comment 7/21 2:25 p.m.