ARCADIA, Calif. – Clutching a Starbucks cup in his right hand and a “Honk for horseracing” sign in his left, Doug O’Neill stood facing the traffic and worst-case scenarios.
Twice the winning trainer of the Kentucky Derby, and closing in on $133 million in career earnings, O’Neill nonetheless knows his success is built on an increasingly fragile foundation. So before he saddled four Breeders’ Cup horses Friday afternoon at Santa Anita, California, O’Neill joined a few dozen racing employees and enthusiasts along Huntington Drive to remind motorists of the human costs should the sport end or contract because of the death rate of its animal athletes.
“The reality of it is that 77,000 jobs are tied to the sport, just in California,” O’Neill said. “We all chose to work alongside horses for a living. We have to share that.”
At both ends of the block just beyond Santa Anita’s Gate 5, brass bands played Mexican “Banda” music in what was promoted as a “celebration” of “My Horse, My Job, My Life.” A small boy dressed in jockey silks held a “Honk if you love horse racing” sign near the corner of Huntington and Colorado Street.
Greg and Dolores Renick, who own 25% of a winless gelding called Code Gray and the unraced Majestic Mountain, took their places a few yards apart on the sidewalk.
“It’s important that horse racing survives as an industry in California,” Greg Renick said. “I think there are people who would like to shut it down. I think it’s important that people that enjoy racing — whether they’re fans or owners or people who are employed in the industry — show that we care about racing and horses.”
Because signs outnumbered sign-holders, though, many of the hand-lettered placards were strewn on the grass or hung from a railing. Since much of the traffic was headed to the track, horn honks were numerous. Periodically, cars stopped as drivers recognized O’Neill’s face behind his stubble and sunglasses.
Farther south, near Gate 3, a small group opposed to racing protested outside a track that has lost 36 horses since Christmas. Curiously, one of racing’s most strident critics did not participate. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which had staged a larger protest Thursday at the office of Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey, chose to sit this one out.
“We aren’t protesting the track that has instituted the biggest changes to protect horses in racing in the last 20 years,” PETA Vice President Kathy Guillermo said. “But we want the deaths to get to zero and I don’t think that will happen unless there are serious consequences for what may very well be medication misuse.”
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Herein lies racing’s long-running logjam. Though a significant number of horsemen hold drugs primarily responsible for the sport’s troubling death toll, proposed reforms continue to encounter stern resistance. Supporters of the Horse Racing Integrity Act, the latest attempt to impose national drug oversight on a fragmented sport, believe Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will block the bill unless Churchill Downs endorses it.
Another faction disputes the connection between race-day medication and breakdowns, particularly as it pertains to the popular diuretic Lasix. Trainer Mark Casse says racing’s prevalent dirt surfaces are the chief culprit behind catastrophic injuries and that the sport has been “chasing the wrong rabbit.”
Even as Santa Anita’s breakdowns became an industrywide crisis, consensus has been elusive. Though all parties acknowledge American racing has experienced too many fatalities, particularly as compared with other countries, risk is inherent in the sport.
How much risk is too much is subjective, and it could be shifting. Wednesday, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent a threatening letter to the California Horse Racing Board’s Rick Baedeker, suggesting that if the Breeders’ Cup could not be conducted safely at Santa Anita, “it may be time to reexamine the future of this sport in our state and in our country.”