A group of animal rights advocates convened at the Saratoga Race Course on Sunday to not only raise awareness about the deaths of horses on the racetrack both during and after track season, but also make a case for the totally abolishing horse racing in general.
Horseracing Wrongs, a 501(c)3 organization based out of Albany, protested from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday at the intersection of Union and East avenues in Saratoga Springs directly outside the main entrance to the Saratoga Race Course.
As hundreds of racing-enthusiasts made their way into the track lugging coolers and chairs, approximately 45 protesters stood on the sidewalks holding signs and banners that bore large photos of downed race horses and the names of racehorses, both in Saratoga and across the country, that have died on the track or been slaughtered when racing season ended.
The main argument of the group is that, at its core, horse racing is simply a vehicle for gambling in which horses are forced to compete, often before they reach maturity, and worked until they die for the sake of making money.
The protestors, who ranged in age from children to elderly adults, came from all over the state to participate. New people, vice president Nicole Arciello said, join the group every week. This is the third year that the group has held large protests at the track.
"They get outraged," Arciello said.
There have been two horse deaths at Saratoga this season. Thoroughbred Heartspoke collapsed last Wednesday on the racetrack after having a cardiovascular related issue, and thoroughbred Macho Citizen was euthanized on Saturday, according to the Gaming Commission.
Horseracing Wrong's methods of reaching people, Patrick Battuello said, are non-confrontational and not aggressive. Protesters, he added, don't have a chance of reaching longtime horse racing enthusiasts. Their targets, he said, are casual track-goers who might bring their family to the track, not necessarily to gamble, but for a day out. The point, he said, is to show people that there are alternative forms of entertainment that don't involve the deaths of animals.
"We're here to spread a very simple message," he said. "The horse racing industry is engaged in wholesale carnage. This is not hyperbole. This is fact. Between the horses that are killed on the track, like Macho Citizen right here yesterday, and horses that die in their stall between races from colic and laminitis, and the ones who are mercilessly slaughtered when their racing careers have come to an end, we're talking in excess of 20,000 American horses sacrificed every year."
The majority of the exchanges between track-goers and the protesters on Sunday were civil. Most either politely declined the flyers the protesters were handing or accepted them and continued on their way. A handful of cars driving through the intersection honked their horns in support.
But not everyone was content with the protest. One man, who refused to provide his name to The Daily Gazette, called out, "you're wearing leather shoes," to a member of Horseracing Wrongs after she attempted to hand him a flyer.
Trisha Coughlin, a Schenectady resident, joined the organization after seeing a segment about it on the news. This is her second year protesting outside of the track, she said, and her goal is to teach people about how perilous racing can be for horses, which she learned about only a few years ago.
"We're here to educate the public about everything that's wrong with horse racing," she said. "There's so much wrong. There's no good that comes from it. So many are simply bred to be forced to race, and confined and drugged."
To Coughlin, a crucial part in raising awareness for the horses is telling people that there are other activities they can participate in, and other ways to gamble, if that's what they want to do.
"It's important for the public to know that there's other means of gambling, there are other means of entertainment," she said. "It's just an absolutely unnecessary event."
In general, she added, people don't become angry when approached by the protesters. Often, she said, people simply don't know about the horses who die.
"They don't know, and that's why we're here. It's about education," she said.
Protesters pointed specifically to last year's racing season in Saratoga, during which 18 horses died, to illustrate their urgency in abolishing race track activities.
However, both the state Gaming Commission and New York Racing Association have recently responded to horse deaths.
Last season, new safety measures were announced in the wake of the record number of horse fatalities at the race course, including an increased regulatory veterinary presence at the track during training, state-of-the-art horse monitoring and comprehensive trainer education on common thoroughbred injuries and ways to prevent them.
"Our goal is to reduce the number of racehorse deaths and injuries to zero, and we have taken many productive steps toward reaching that goal over the past four years,” state Equine Medical Director Scott Palmer said in a prepared statement last year. “However, our work is never done, and there will always be challenges that require re-examination and recalibration to effectively protect horses and their riders.”
Horseracing Wrongs will continue its work also. The group will be at the track every Sunday for the remainder of the meet, and expects its biggest crowd at the Travers Stakes. But they're taking it one day at a time.
"The question for people going in today is very simple," Battuello said. "Is a $2 bet, or the entertainment, worth that cruelty and killing? We think not. It's 2018. We can and should be better than this."