Horse industry must ‘clean up the mess’

Frank CagleFrank Talk

Attendance at the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration in Shelbyville week before last was estimated to be at a 50-year low. The U.S. House recently passed a bill to stop the torture of Walking Horses by a margin of 333-96. These two events are not unrelated.


But the horse abusers can take heart that the bill has to pass the U.S. Senate and Walking Horse owners and trainers have a friend in Tennessee’s U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. Alexander has joined with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, both of Kentucky, to sponsor a weaker bill that waters down the protections of the House bill. More on McConnell later.

Frank Cagle

Rather that have all the squabbling about chemical burns, stacked shoes, chains and such, there is a much simpler solution. Every time a Walking Horse hits the “Big Lick,” ban its trainer and owner from the sport. The Walking Horse is the mount of choice for lots of pleasure riders, especially on the mountain trails of East Tennessee. The “Big Lick” is a grotesque perversion of its natural gait.

The abuse of high-stepping gaited horses has been egregious over the years, and deserves the attention it gets. But the American public tunes in every year to watch the Kentucky Derby and the other Triple Crown races then ignores the sport for the rest of the year.

In many ways the treatment of thoroughbreds in the racing industry is worse. And attendance numbers at horse tracks around the country are also in decline. The people in charge of both sports are persisting in the same behavior while the public is turned off and it’s doing damage to the horse industry.

I’ve had horses all my adult life, thoroughbreds, quarter horses and warm bloods. When it comes to sport horses, we would not consider jumping fences or intensive dressage work until a horse is at least three and preferably four years old, to avoid causing injury to the knees. A horse grows until age seven. But the racing industry throws thoroughbred colts on the track as two-year-olds. And most of them are actually younger than that.

The Jockey Club tells The New York Times an average of 10 race horses a week died in 2018. Why does the industry just write off a certain percentage of each crop of colts? Because it’s a $5.2 billion industry and allowing colts and fillies to spend another year or two growing before being raced is two years without revenue from your investment.

You may recall last year there was a race horse named Justify. On the day of the Kentucky Derby the morons who broadcast horse racing wondered over and over how the colt would do because he didn’t have the experience of racing as a two-year-old. The Derby was only his fourth start. The “lightly raced” horse that just didn’t get experience racing as a two-year-old went on to win the Triple Crown.

Aside from the age thing, the racing industry is riddled with drug use. Trainers use drugs to mask pain to get some races out of a colt before it’s discarded. Unable to feel pain, colts hurt themselves worse. Horses are routinely given a diuretic called Lasik before a race, which dehydrates the horse. One reason there is such a gap in Triple Crown winners is that most horses cannot recover from losing a hundred pounds of fluid before the next race. It is estimated that five percent of horses need Lasik to run, but it is administered to most horses anyway. It is banned on race day every other place in the world.

Some states and some well-known trainers, such as the Hancocks at Claiborne Farm, have called for banning or tightly regulating drug use, as is done in England and Europe, where the incidence of horse fatalities is much lower. Horse racing deaths in the U.S. are up to five times the rate in England. But legislation is unlikely because the horse racing industry has a showcase called Churchill Downs where they run the Kentucky Derby. The Derby powers that be are opposed to banning drugs. And guess who represents Kentucky in the U.S. Senate? That would be Moscow Mitch McConnell. McConnell says there won’t be a bill unless the racetracks in Kentucky say it’s OK. As noted, McConnell and Paul are also co-sponsors of Alexander’s bill on Walking Horse abuse.

The racing industry got some attention this past year when 23 horses died in a three-month period at Santa Anita Park in California. Various causes are being investigated; in the meantime, the public has moved on and is no longer paying attention.

But the people in the horse industry, whether in Shelbyville or at Churchill Downs, need to clean up the mess. Or someone will do it for you. Look at that 333-96 House vote again, and think about it. And McConnell will not be around forever.

Everybody’s safe: I called relatives in Alabama and found they all survived the hurricane that President Trump predicted for them. It hasn’t rained in a week. They also were a little puzzled at a weather map on CNN that had Mississippi next door to Georgia. They suspect Fake News.

Liberal: Perusing a state poll on education issue taken in August I was struck by one question in particular. It asked respondents ideology. It sounds about right. Very conservative, somewhat conservative totaled 46 percent. Independent/moderate 25 percent. Very liberal 6 percent, somewhat liberal 11 percent, or a total of 17 percent admit to being liberal at all. That explains the Republican super majority in the legislature, seven of nine U.S. House members and two U.S. senators.

Frank Cagle is a retired newspaperman and the former managing editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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