A few months ago I watched the 1989 film "Let it Ride," a gentle comedy about a compulsive gambler who wins big at the track.
The gambler, played by Richard Dreyfuss, has promised his wife he'll quit betting on horses. But he heads to the track anyway, and wins every bet he places. By the end of the film, his wife is cheering him on.
"Let it Ride" depicts the track as a magical place where dreams come true. It puts a smile on your face, in part because it ignores some of the uglier realities of betting on horses.
One thing you won't see in "Let it Ride" is a horse being put down after suffering a catastrophic injury during a race. Seeing a horse get euthanized would wipe the smiles off most viewers' faces.
Out in the real world, it's become increasingly difficult to avoid thinking about the horses that die each year in training or races.
This is partly due to the tireless advocacy of animal rights organizations such as Colonie-based Horseracing Wrongs, which has made it its mission to draw attention to these deaths.
But it's also due to the fact that horses keep dying, and people don't like watching horses die.
Last week, a filly named Fight Night was euthanized at Saratoga Race Course after fracturing her ankle and falling on the track. She was the first horse to die racing at Saratoga this year, but the fifth horse to die since workouts began in April. One of those horses died of "non-racing causes," according to the state Gaming Commission, while three others died training.
These deaths aren't occurring in isolation.
Tracks throughout the country are being asked to explain why horses are dying.
A string of fatalities at popular Santa Anita Park in California received national attention, with the Los Angeles Times calling for the track to call off the rest of the meet in May.
The track stayed open, but The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, announced a ban on Lasix, a diuretic that is said to prevent bleeding in the lungs but is widely believed to be a performance-enhancing drug, that will apply to all horses born in or after 2018.
In a statement that sounds as if it might have been penned by an animal rights activist, The Stronach Group said, "As the recent tragedies at Santa Anita have illustrated, thoroughbred horse racing in the United States is at a crossroads. ... The fact that horses running in America are five times more likely to suffer a catastrophic injury than horses running at international venues is unacceptable and must immediately change."
The Stronach Group is right.
The deaths we see every year are unacceptable.
The question, then, is what to do about them, short of shutting down thoroughbred race tracks.
Gina Rarick, a racehorse trainer based in France, suggests in an essay in the New York Times that the reason racehorses are breaking down and getting euthanized at a rate double or triple other parts of the world is the "excessive use of medications, practically from birth."
She writes, "Horses in Europe race medication-free. There is no tolerance for pharmaceuticals on race day, and horses in training are routinely tested out of competition. A horse with a problem can be treated, but the drugs must be out of its system before a race."
If horses in Europe can race medication-free, so can horses in America.
And if horses at European tracks are dying at much lower rates than U.S. tracks, we should look to Europe for ideas on how to make racing safer.
There are some promising reforms in the works.
A coalition that includes tracks owned by the New York Racing Association and The Stronach Group announced earlier this year that they would begin phasing out the use of Lasix, and that Lasix will be eliminated in all stakes races beginning in 2021.
There's been a lot of hand-wringing over racehorse fatalities, but hand-wringing doesn't fix problems.
What's needed is real reform.
It's time for America's thoroughbred tracks to do a better job of protecting the horses that are their bread and butter. If they don't, horses will continue to die and customers will look for other diversions. Reducing the number of horse deaths each year makes sense from a business perspective.
But it's also the right thing to do.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]