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After 15 years at the racetrack, I can no longer watch a horse race

first_imgOn of my earliest recollections of being on the track was at 15 years old. I was sitting on a bale of straw in a barn on the backside of Philadelphia Park Racetrack. My boss, a horse trainer, came striding down the shedrow and handed me a cheesesteak sandwich from the backside kitchen. He told me to keep watch. Hot walkers with steaming wet horses circled the shed like fish in a bowl. “You see anyone aside from these guys walking horses, tell me,” he said with icy eyes. Then he and the groom ducked into the dimly lit stall with the horse we had shipped in to run that day. They hovered around the horse’s head in a corner administering something the groom later told me “was to help him breathe”. I turned back to watch what they were doing and heard the rasp of a lighter and saw wisps of smoke. They whooshed the smoke into the horse’s nostrils and in short, panting puffs the colt pilled the smoke into his lungs.The horse ran third that day and I never could determine with any certainty what the smoky treatment was. Perhaps something totally benign, yet the scene has kept a sinister presence in my memory. As it turned out, that day would be only the beginning of what I would see during my life as an exercise rider on the backsides of America’s racetracks.I galloped thousands of horses and so many were battling damaged and otherwise malfunctioning legs that one of my strongest general recollections is of working from on top of their backs to actively help them from stumbling and falling. I galloped horses who moved so poorly it was as if every step was a new agony. Their chronic pain coupled with the unnatural way they are forced to live can lead to depression, frustration and listlessness. Some horses get so angry they charge, teeth bared and intent to hurt, anyone walking by their stall door. Animal welfare Share on LinkedIn Share on Pinterest comment Read more Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Support The Guardian … we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading and supporting The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. And unlike many new organisations, we have chosen an approach that allows us to keep our journalism accessible to all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford. But we need your ongoing support to keep working as we do.The Guardian will engage with the most critical issues of our time – from the escalating climate catastrophe to widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. 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Since you’re here… Horse racing Death on the track: why are so many horses dying at Santa Anita?center_img Either in the forefront or in the subconscious of every rider’s mind when legged-up on a racehorse is the fear that they might go down. At top speed a broken leg spells the final moment for a horse and possibly for the rider as well. Riders are on constant lookout. Horses that are chronically injured but still in training, still running races, are called “cripples” in racetrack slang, and a trainer who engages in the practice of treating their horses this way is called “a butcher”. These are terms all racetrackers in America understand. The rigors of training and running ensure that virtually no horse finishes a career unscathed and most are done by five years old.Eventually I made my way to Santa Anita in Los Angeles. At Santa Anita I landed a job with a prominent outfit galloping some of the best-bred horses in the world. Though I was working on the top string for a prestigious trainer, I was not exercising the stars. Instead I rode mostly the “sore” horses, the ones who needed nursing through their gallops. Some warmed up and their stride softened and found a rhythmic safety. In those cases, I settled in as passenger staying out their way as they trained themselves. I was routinely reprimanded for not making my horses gallop fast enough, because in my barn overall fitness took priority above the quality of the legs. If the legs didn’t hold up there was a fresh set waiting to be shipped in. For a time, I galloped a small two-year-old filly who was in a bad way. I worried about her and so I warned the jockey ahead of a race to be careful. The following morning the assistant trainer marched into the barn and announced: “We have a leak.” My offense was considered treason. My filly finished that race safely but sadly a few years later her jockey was involved in a crash during a race that left him in a wheelchair and his horse dead.Though I had always been uncomfortable with the culture of forcing horses to run, I did also have relationships with many who loved to train. Galloping a healthy, sound and happy horse who loves to run is the most spiritual, magical thing I’ve experienced. Any exercise rider or jockey will tell you the same. A bond can be established that it truly otherworldly. But when a horse is hurt, aggressively medicated, and forced to train and race repeatedly at speeds that exceed their natural inclination, then it constitutes abuse. The current standard in American racing – lots of medication and extreme speeds on legs too young to endure it – is abusive and the horses have no choice in the matter whatsoever. It isn’t simply an issue of animal rights, it is one of ethics and morality.I came to a time late in my career when I could no longer ignore inside of me what I was seeing outside. The tapping of ankles on a three-year-old that released a projectile stream of fluid followed by steroid injections. Horses hobbling to, around and from the track. Young horses breaking their legs in half. I justified doing my job by telling myself, and sometimes others, that these horses would have to train whether I was there or not, and if I could make it easier on them by being kind, letting them go slow and cutting the distance short when I wasn’t being watched, then I was helping in some way to combat the greater doom they faced. I hope to some degree this was true. I know many riders who felt the same. I don’t fall back on those excuses now, however still conflicted I feel about racing. The track was my home and to this day I would feel that way. I also understand the dilemma for backside people who need to make a living; they are not the ones ultimately responsible for what racing has become.The horses must be protected. It’s high time that became priority number one. There are billions of dollars in the upper echelons of racing, so an industry-sponsored thoroughbred retirement program is an absolute must. Additionally, an industry-wide overhaul of the status quo for medicating horses, one that invites federal oversight, and a solid reform of training methods should be addressed immediately and remain on the agenda for the foreseeable future. I was delighted to see The Jockey Club has now called out for aggressive and dramatic changes in regulation. If American racing can embrace the rights and a focus on the wellbeing of its equine athletes, only then can the sport possibly recover its badly tarnished image.But for today, I look at my racehorse in his retirement, I shudder to think of what could have been. Yet an even darker thought is for the horses who still have races to run, races they may not survive. Share on Messenger Topics California I have come to a time in my life where I cannot watch a horse race. It evokes too much anxiety and fear, flashbacks of catastrophe, so I close my eyes and pray only for the horses to make it home safely. It is an odd thing considering I spent 15 years at the racetrack and couldn’t have defined myself outside of it. As I write this – after a recent rash of deaths of horses at Santa Anita Park – I sit in a pasture outside Austin, typing and watching my 20-year-old former racehorse graze. I took him off the track when he was five and had to be retired because he had already fractured both hind ankles. One carries a pin in it to this day. It would be years before they stopped blowing-up with fluid any time he did anything above a walk. 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