A spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which staged a peaceful demonstration May 6 in front of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority office near Lexington, said similar demonstrations are planned for upcoming Triple Crown events. Meanwhile, the organization said it may attempt to get cruelty charges filed against the connections of Eight Belles, who was euthanized after the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
The demonstration, which came after PETA wrote a letter to the KHRA asking for changes in horse racing, drew about 12 animal-rights activists and as many supporters of the racing industry. There were even more members of the media, a sign the fallout from the death of Eight Belles after her second-place Derby finish could continue for a while on a national stage.
PETA supporters held signs that said “Racing Horses: Beaten and Broken,” and “Stop Racing Horses to the Grave.” Their counterparts displayed signs that said “Gabriel Saez Is Not a Murderer,” “Larry Jones is No. 1,” and “PETA = Animal Killer.” Saez and Jones are the jockey and trainer, respectively, of Eight Belles, who was owned by Rick Porter.
Demonstrators stood in front of the KHRA office for about an hour as law enforcement officials viewed the proceedings from several hundred feet away. Lindsay Rajt, the local spokeswoman for PETA, a national organization, confirmed the group will have a presence at the May 17 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland, and the June 7 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park in New York.
Rajt said PETA supporters would demonstrate on public property around the racetracks. The Kentucky Horse Park, where the KHRA office is located, is state property.
“We’re here today following up on a letter with some very practical guidelines that need to be implemented,” Rajt said of PETA’s call for mandate synthetic surfaces, a ban on use of the whip, and an end to 2-year-old racing.
When asked if PETA is seeking changes or a total ban on Thoroughbred racing, Rajt said: “Today, we’re here on an animal welfare level. But we would love to see an end to horse racing. It’s a greedy, dirty money game in which horses are killed on the track.”
Details on a lawsuit that could be filed in Kentucky weren’t immediately available, though Rajt indicated legal action is in the works. “We’re calling for cruelty-to-animal charges to be pressed,” she said. “We also think the stewards need to file a complaint against (Saez for use of the whip). We need to have standards in place.”
Jones, who trained Eight Belles for more than a year, has said Saez did nothing wrong, and the jockey himself issued a statement about the situation. The KHRA, meanwhile, has found no violation of regulations and plans no action.
Alan Foreman, an equine attorney and board member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said animal-cruelty charges typically involve abandonment, physical abuse, and neglect.
"That's typically what you see in these cases," he said. "There have also been cases where somebody puts a cat in a microwave--that sort of thing."
But Thoroughbreds, Foreman said, are cared for meticulously, get the best veterinary care, are well-fed, and are checked by state vets. He also said there was "nothing unusual or untoward with what the jockey did" aboard Eight Belles.
"They are bred to race, and accidents happen," Foreman said of Thoroughbreds. "It's not cruelty. To allege cruelty, they have to have specific allegations. This is an unfortunate tragedy, and it should be recognized for what it is."
Rajt said demonstrations tied to the Preakness and Belmont would be designed to "educate the public on cruelty to animals."
One of the pro-racing demonstrators was Michael Blowen, who operates the Old Friends retirement farm near Georgetown, Ky. Blowen said he attended to offer support and to represent retired horses.
“There are great owners who support horses in retirement and love their horses,” Blowen said. “I think this is a difficult subject. Are the issues crucial? Yes. What I’m hoping is something will happen like what happened with Ferdinand. We started Old Friends out of that situation.”
Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, eventually was found to have been slaughtered in Japan. That heightened industry efforts in the area of equine retirement programs.
Blowen acknowledged not all owners care about their horses, but by and large the animals are well taken care of and even revered. He noted that on May 6, about 60 second-graders from Corbin, Ky., and senior citizens traveling by bus from Nashville, Tenn., visited Old Friends.
“Without these horses, there is nothing here,” Blowen said. “I can go from my house to here and not pass anything but horse farms. If PETA wants to come to my farm to see how we take care of our horses, I’d be glad to have them.”
Patrick Neely, executive director of the Kentucky Equine Education Project, was on hand to view the demonstration. He said horse industry participants are involved "for the love of the horse, and all of our objectives are to make sure the sport is safe for the horse and rider."
Lisa Underwood, executive director of the KHRA, said she couldn’t comment on a lawsuit that may or may not be filed by PETA. She did comment on other issues stemming from the death of Eight Belles at Churchill Downs.
“I am very proud of our veterinary team,” Underwood said. “Their response time was very quick, and we had multiple vets available.”
As for a synthetic-surface mandate in Kentucky, she said: “I think it would be premature to rush to judgment. Research is still being done (on racing surfaces).”
California is the only state to mandate synthetic surfaces at major tracks. In more than a year, however, there has been no word of pending synthetic surface installations at tracks in the United States.
The KHRA received about 25,000 e-mails through noon May 6, though it appears most were of the click-and-send variety; PETA encouraged supporters to submit a letter to KHRA chairman Robert Beck through its Web site. Underwood said she and others received personal e-mails, many of which were in support of the racing industry.
“It’s always a tragedy when we lose a horse, but that’s the exception, not the rule.”