Berkeley has long prided itself on being a bastion of ethics, equality and kindness where all beings are valued and treated with respect. Unfortunately, we don’t always uphold those virtuous notions that we so proudly uphold. Look no further for an example of hypocrisy than Golden Gate Fields, the racetrack that straddles Berkeley and Albany, where horses have been routinely raced to death since 1941. In the annual state of California average of 200 to 300 deaths of horses, an average of 30 horses die each year at this racecourse. It is shocking that such unimaginable cruelty is continually allowed to happen right here in our own backyard. This outdated and murderous carnage must stop.
The reason for the racetrack’s long survival is simple: the American horse gaming industry generates $102 billion in economic activity each year. Of this amount, $7 billion comes from California. Indeed, our so-called ethics bubble is making a healthy tax cut from Golden Gate Fields. Horse racing makes big money and horses pay the ultimate price.
Between 1,000 and 2,000 horses are killed each year in racing and training across the United States. Hundreds more die in their stalls. Thousands Following are slaughtered after they are no longer financially useful. John Holland, President of the Equine Welfare Alliance, reports “The problem is that the whole (horse racing) industry is a conveyor belt for slaughter,” his nonprofit organization is dedicated to ending the slaughter of American horses.
Alex Waldrop, former president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, estimates that 7,500 Thoroughbreds a year are slaughtered for human consumption. Kentucky Derby champion Ferdinand was shot after his breeding days in Japan ended, and Exceller, a million-dollar racehorse who was inducted into the National Racing Museum Hall of Fame, was killed in a slaughterhouse.
From start to finish, the life of a racehorse is anything but glamorous. Young foals are cruelly separated from their mothers and ruthlessly broken into submission to human orders. Then, from the age of 2, when their skeletal structures are still vulnerable and far from fully developed, racehorses are subjected to intensive training. Continuous, forced acceleration at high speeds in tight corners makes bone breakage inevitable. Painful jockey whips and pain-masking drug cocktails make it even worse.
The most recent report from the California Horse Racing Board, or CHRB, Postmortem Program admits that broken legs and ankles “are the leading cause of fatal injuries in racehorses, both in racing and in training, accounting for almost 50% of all musculoskeletal deaths”. They go on to admit that stress fractures from prior training and racing cause cumulative weaknesses leading to “nearly 90% of musculoskeletal fatalities in racing and training.” In an email, national horse racing expert Patrick Battuello wrote: “From breeding for speed, to employing pubescent bodies, to relentlessly grinding – not to mention commodifying – those bodies, to force them to run at an unnatural pace, in an unnatural way, and by unnatural means, horse racing guarantees the kill. Guarantees.
Additionally, young racehorses are often confined to their stables for 23 hours a day, unable to naturally exercise and socialize with other animals as they do in the wild. Many of these captive horses develop recognizable symptoms of animal psychological distress, such as wind sucking and repetitive rocking from side to side, also commonly seen in elephants and circus bears.
According to Deniz Bolbol of the American Wild Horse Campaign, wild horses are believed to have one of the most sophisticated and complex social structures of any wild species in North America. Race captivity not only takes away their companionship and freedom, but also causes unnatural stress to the point of irreversible psychological problems. In the wild, a horse can live an average of 30 years, compared to the alarming average age of 2 to 4 years for a racehorse.
The CHRB is an independent entity empowered to license and regulate the horse racing betting industry. According to section 19481.7 of the Business and Professions Code, “The council may, at any time, immediately suspend a license to hold a race meeting where necessary to protect the health and safety of horses or riders who are present at the race meeting.” But despite the horrific deaths that regularly occur at California racetracks, the CHRB has yet to revoke a single license.
Horse racing is a gambling industry, not a sport. These “star athletes” did not choose to join this company. If an underage human being was coerced into a life-threatening activity, self-administered a cocktail of drugs, whipped repetitively, and ended up dying during the publicly broadcast match, it would be considered horribly criminal.
At its core, horse racing is legalized trafficking: the purchase, use, and abuse of another living thing for personal gain. How can Berkeley continue to identify itself as a community of fairness and benevolence when such atrocious activities persist within its confines? New legislation must be put in place not only for the defense of innocent horses, but also for the moral integrity of our city.
Tweed Conrad is a Berkeley-based researcher and alumnus of UC Berkeley. Contact the Opinion Bureau at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.