Horse racing at Del Mar
Horse racing at Del Mar. Photo by Chris Stone

People are rightly outraged by brutal dog fighting, on which spectators gamble. The media’s coverage of dog fighting is dominated by images of Black and Latino men placing their bets as pit bulls fight, and there is a longstanding pattern of demonization.

Author Bronwen Dickey writes that the pit bull went from an American icon to a vicious fighting animal thanks to media coverage that associated dog fighting with tough urban neighborhoods populated by Blacks and Latinos.

The supposed link between dangerous animals and non-whites is troubling example of racism. As the actor Michael B. Jordan memorably phrased it: “Black males, we are America’s pit bull. We’re labeled vicious, inhumane, and left to die on the street.”

Jordan made the comment in a promotional interview for the film “Fruitvale Station,” in which he played Oscar Grant, an Oakland resident fatally shot by transit police in what anti-brutality activists have described as an execution.

I bring this up to contrast the treatment of the mostly white, wealthy owners and trainers of racehorses brutally used up every day for gambling. Why the difference?

Horses are beloved like dogs, yet they are bred for a brutal industry. They’re subjected to torture devices to control them — tongues being tied down, blinkers to narrow vision, confined for 23 hours most days, and whipped for greater speed. Add the drugs to mask pain and enable heightened speed. Bones and joints splinter and shatter under the pounding. Resistance by some horses results in horrific collisions with other horses, railings and gates.

Over 2,000 racehorses die in the United States every year based on death reports compiled from regulatory bodies. USA Today reported last fall that at least 7,500 US racehorses are sent each year to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico to be butchered for human and pet food.

Horse racing is well-known as a sordid industry with ties to organized crime that go far back and continue to the present day.

The sport frequently shows its lawlessness. In March, a grand jury in the Southern District of New York indicted 27 individuals in what federal prosecutors called a “widespread scheme to illegally dope racehorses.”  The most prominent person indicted was Jason Servis, famed trainer of Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first at the 2019 Kentucky Derby but was disqualified for obstruction.

The scheme involved drugging horses in “an effort to increase their performance beyond their natural abilities” in races across the country, according to the FBI’s Bill Sweeney. Among the indicted include trainers, veterinarians and drug distributors.

The animals involved often suffered, experiencing distress, injuries and even death.

“It amounted to nothing short of abuse,” said Sweeney of the FBI, noting that the humans meanwhile “lined their pockets” while manipulating the sport.

This doping scandal is widely acknowledged to be the tip of the iceberg in this industry which has run on doping, animal abuse and cheating since its beginnings.

News broke last week that two horses from the barn of famed California-based trainer Bob Baffert tested positive for an illegal drug. In his defense, Baffert said an employee who was himself suffering from back pain inadvertently exposed the horses to his medication.

How much more evidence do we need to finally outlaw horse racing as the brutal animal abuse for crooked gambling that it is, as we have outlawed dog fighting and cockfighting?

If California legislators put an amendment to our state Constitution to allow sports betting before the voters, it would be a great opportunity to also repeal the betting on live horse races approved by voters in 1933. In the 21st Century, bet on consenting humans, not animals with no say.

It’s time to kill racing — not horses.

Imperial Beach resident Martha Sullivan has protested horse racing at the Del Mar Fairgrounds for several years, and regularly participates in meetings of the California Horse Racing Board and the Del Mar Fairgrounds Board.