PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) clearly has an agenda different from most of society. While most in the public care about the protection of animals from abuse, PETA has made it their crusade to stop the use of animals for anything that could benefit humans if it means harming the animals. Listening to comments made by its spokespeople it is clear they see little difference in the health and well being of human beings from the welfare of animals. Some of their campaigns have been quite effective in demonstrating animal cruelty that led to changes. For example, many cosmetic companies no longer test on animals due to organizations like PETA and slaughterhouses try to use more humane methods when processing meat. However, PETA's goal is to eliminate meat eating altogether and to stop animals being used in other ways. PETA's slogan is "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment." Consequently PETA has decided to take on the horse racing industry as an entertainment industry that it feels needs to be abolished.
Even though horse racing has been around for centuries and horses have always been used for the betterment of mankind (whether it be to pull wagons, a form of transportation, etc.), PETA has unilaterally decided that horse racing is detrimental to horses and must be stopped. On their public relations website, PETA takes shows the few cases where racehorses have been over drugged or where they were sold to slaughterhouses overseas when they could no longer race. While these cases are extremely rare, PETA seems to imply that theyare widespread. Yet for every Alydar and Ferdinand which had heartless owners, there are tens of thousands of race horse owners who care for their animals like their own children and wouldn't ever put them in harm's way. Plus, when they no longer are able to race most owners usually put them on the farm (or send them to breed). In fact Randy Moss (not the football player), who has been covering horse racing for years and knows the inside and outs of the horse racing industry, suggested that "horse racing's dirty little secret" is that horses are often treated better than most human beings.
It thus was unfortunate, but not surprising, that PETA used Eight Belles' tragic end to the Kentucky Derby for a publicity stunt. By all accounts the injury to Eight Belles was the ultimate fluke. After crossing the finish line and cooling down, Eight Belles seemed to take a bad step and broke both ankles. The Churchill Downs veterinarian said he had never seen that happen in all his years as track veterinarian and other track veterinarians concurred. As well, Hall of Fame Jockey Jerry Bailey stated after the race that he had never seen anything like that. It would essentially be similar to a sprinter finishing a sprint race with no issues, then breaking both his legs while walking back to the locker room. Yet despite the fact it was simply an unfortunate freak event, PETA took it upon itself to blame jockey Gabriel Saez for the injury and called for his immediate suspension. By all accounts Saez did nothing wrong and dismounted the horse immediately after sensing something was wrong, but PETA (who clearly has less concern for the feelings of the human jockey than the horse) took the opportunity to lay blame, accusing Saez of mercilessly whipping the horse down the stretch which they believe somehow led to the horse breaking its ankles. Eight Belles' own trainer looked at the footage and stated that she seemed happy, her ears were perked up and there was no indication anything was wrong during the race. The fact that the trainer, owner, nor anyone else close to the horse believed Saez was at fault seemed to be of consequence to PETA.
PETA didn't stop with Saez in its condemnations, but took the incident as an opportunity to blame horse racing in general. Short of calling for an outright ban of the sport, it made some demands which it said would make the sport safer. First, it wanted all dirt track races to be eliminated and switched to turf or polytrack only. Second, it wanted all whipping stopped in horse races. Third, it demanded age limits on horses that can run. Lastly, PETA stated that the number of races per year should be limited.
With regards to polytrack, its use is being expanded throughout the country. More tracks seem to be installing it every year and there is an expectation that in the next few years all the big tracks in North America will have it. Ironically, it was the racing industry that decided to start installing the surface, as tracks like Turfway Park, Del Mar, Keeneland and Woodbine (to name just a few) felt that if the surface could help prevent injury to horses it had to be adapted. They did so despite the enormous costs of installing the track along with the consternation of many horseplayers who find it hard to handicap. And the surface has indeed cut down on injuries. A spokesman for Woodbine Entertainment stated on a radio show prior to the Kentucky Derby that the polytrack surface has produced just 3 fatal injuries to date, compared to years prior where the amount would be in at least the teens. That hardly sounds like an industry that doesn't care about its animals. Mind you, in the United Kingdom all races are run on turf or polytrack, yet the UK faction of PETA is still calling for horse racing's ban. So obviously they will not be happy even if races are simply switched to those surfaces.
PETA's call to ban the whip is also short sighted. When those outside the industry hear of whipping a horse they likely think of what a slave owner in the old days or a dominatrix would do to its submissive with heavy leather whips. But horse racing whips are generally made of lightweight materials that hurt the horse no more than a small flick would hurt a human. More importantly jockeys generally don't hit the horse's flesh anyways. The jockeys' try to hit the saddlecloth or will wave the stick in front of the horse and make clicking sounds. The sound of the whip is what gets the horse to move. As well, sometimes in races horses tend to get confused and the jockey needs to show the whip to the horse to keep it moving in the right direction. Eight Belles' trainer stated that his horse had a tendency to drift into the rail and Saez had to show the whip to her to keep her moving forward. Saez realized he couldn't win the race and was well ahead in second. His reason for using the whip in the stretch was to keep Eight Belles' from hurting herself by running into the rail. If a horse will not respond to a whip, or doesn't require one, many times a program will state "no whip" indicating that the jockey will not be carrying a whip for that horse. Instead the jockey may use their hand which ironically could hurt the horse more. But if whips are totally banned there could be more carnage on the track than if they are allowed. Anyone who has seen a horse that runs a race on its own after it dismounts its rider can attest that loose horses are totally unpredictable in how they will react. The same holds true for a horse that cannot be made to pay attention because a jockey doesn't have the ability to show it the whip.
Lastly, as for comments on age and race restrictions, most decent trainers and owners try to run a horse only as much as it can handle (generally once or twice a month), and the larger tracks have age restrictions. It is true that some horses run past their prime, but if the horse is sound and enjoys competing why it shouldn't be allowed to?
In any regard, PETA's comments immediately following the tragic death of Eight Belles was uncalled for and did nothing to further its agenda to ban horse racing. Instead PETA's comments simply demonstrated that they will use any incident, whether done on purpose or not, for their own agenda. If PETA really cared about horses they would try to come up with some ideas that could help the welfare of horses without trying to blame those who are not at fault. I guarantee you that no one felt worse after Eight Belles broke her ankles than did Gabriel Saez.
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