‘Very Survival Of The Sport At Risk’: HBO’s ‘Real Sports’ Examines Racing Fatalities

“With so many racehorses dying every year in America, how long will horse racing itself survive?”

That’s the fundamental question asked by correspondent Bernard Goldberg on HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” which aired a 20-minute segment on equine fatalities in Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. on Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET.

The feature, entitled “Raced to Death,” was prompted by the spike in racing fatalities this winter at Santa Anita Park and begins with videos of horses sustaining fatal injuries while racing at the Arcadia, Calif., track. “The fallout was fast and furious, the deaths quickly becoming a national story,” Goldberg says. “This much is known: what happened to the horses at Santa Anita is just the tip of an iceberg the public knows virtually nothing about.”

No effort was made by “Real Sports” to offer a balanced view from the perspective of racing regulators, track operators or horsemen’s organizations on measures taken in recent years to address safety and welfare issues, most notably by The Stronach Group, owner of Santa Anita, earlier this year. At least 18 video clips of horses sustaining serious injuries are shown during the segment, taken from different tracks over a number of years.

Goldberg interviews Patrick Battuello, an upstate New York activist who compiles a list of racing fatalities nationwide through Freedom of Information Act requests to state racing regulators and claims that “easily over 2,000 horses are killed racing or training on U.S. tracks every year.”

Also interviewed is Pennsylvania-based veterinarian Dr. Kathryn Papp, who was featured in a previous “Real Sports” feature on drugs in racing in 2014. Footage from that segment was recycled in the latest piece, and Papp says “not much has changed” on the abuse of drugs she said she witnesses in the five years since that show aired. The program also used gruesome footage from a 2008 “Real Sports” feature on horse slaughter and said many tracks have since adopted anti-slaughter policy. Goldberg interviewed Alicia Mahar, who rescues horses from kill auctions and says the policies are often not enforced.

Goldberg traveled to France to speak with American Gina Rarick, who trains horses there and tells him that medication “is the biggest difference between American racing and racing elsewhere in the world.” (Rarick wrote this recent commentary in the Washington Post.)

“While some trainers in America drug their horses with just about everything under the sun, from legal drugs that mask injuries to illegal drugs like morphine, steroids, even Viagra,” Goldberg states, “here in France they have a simple rule.”

“On race day,” says Rarick, “there can be no drug in the horse’s system. None.”

Stating that some of Rarick’s France-based horses may be smaller than many horses in the U.S., Goldberg adds without substantiation, “That’s because American horses are often pumped with steroids from birth to add muscle so they’ll sell for more at auction.”

Stuart S. Janney III, chairman of The Jockey Club, was interviewed about the federal legislation he supports, the Horseracing Integrity Act, that would establish national oversight of medication policies.

Why, Janney was asked, do “powerful track owners and racing commissions” oppose the legislation?

“They want to keep the power they’ve got, even though they’ve done a terrible job,” Janney responds.

“What about the trainers who use drugs and don’t want the federal government sticking their nose into it, to what they do with the horses?” asks Goldberg.

“Those would be the people who need to be found and weeded out of the sport,” says Janney.

“Have you personally ever said to some of these people, ‘If you don’t change your ways, they may shut us down?’” asks Goldberg.

“I’ve said it repeatedly,” Janney says. “They are putting the very survival of the sport at risk.”

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