Dogs' Plight a Lesson for Horse Racing?

The Greyhound racing industry provides a "cautionary tale" for horse racing.

As the Thoroughbred industry seeks to build on and create new programs to deal with horses that can no longer race, it could learn lessons from Greyhound racing, which has a history of successful adoption programs and first-hand knowledge of the power of animal-rights groups.

Greyhound racing has struggled since the 1980s, and not only because of declines in pari-mutuel handle. Groups such as GREY2K USA, which believes dog racing is cruel and should be outlawed, have used political activism to win legislative bans of the sport in some states.

Officials said Thoroughbred racing isn’t going to the dogs. But they agree there never has been a more critical time to be proactive in regard to the safety and welfare of racehorses.

“The Greyhound industry does a remarkable job in retiring its athletes,” said Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International. “The horse industry needs to aggressively focus on that and promote its successes.”

One of the five primary goals of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance is aftercare and transition of retired racehorses. No one questions whether it’s the right thing to do—or its value in the political arena.

During an April 21 presentation at the RCI annual convention in Lexington, Karen Keelan, president of the American Greyhound Track Operators Association and Seabrook Greyhound Park in New Hampshire, provided an overview of the dog racing industry and its ongoing battle with animal-rights activists. The situation is “not good,” she said.

There are 32 Greyhound tracks in the United States, down from more than 50. Seven have casino-style gambling, including two in West Virginia that now offer the highest purses in the country.

In 2008, GREY2K USA cashed in on an effort it began eight years earlier when Massachusetts passed a referendum banning dog racing. The state’s two tracks are to close in 2010.

Keelan said the animal-rights issue played a major role in passage of the referendum. She said GREY2K USA “worked the grassroots to a degree none of us has seen. Its goal is to outlaw Greyhound racing in every state.”

Soon after the Massachusetts victory, the organization opened an office in New Hampshire. Legislation to ban Greyhound racing there was defeated earlier this year, but GREY2K USA was able to get a legislator to sponsor a bill that would make the state’s two dog tracks pay for regulation.

Keelan said if the bill passes, Seabrook will have to make a choice: pay $480,000 a year to the New Hampshire Pari-Mutuel Commission for regulation or pull the plug on live racing. “We probably couldn’t afford live racing at Seabrook,” she said. “What has happened is this has turned into a political game.”

In the early 1990s, Keelan managed at dog track in Plainfield, Conn., that closed because of competition from two Indian casinos. She said there was “media frenzy” after reports the 1,200 Greyhounds that raced there would be killed. Keelan said it went so far that the governor told her she was personally responsible for the dogs’ lives.

Plainfield was among the first dog tracks to have an adoption program, something now commonplace at Greyhound tracks. With the help of racing regulators, Keelan said all 1,200 dogs were placed in only three weeks, 20% at racetracks and 80% at adoption agencies.

“We have a large network of adoption agencies,” Keelan said. “Groups stepped up right away. But my first call was to the racing commission. The regulatory aspect is so important.”

The Thoroughbred industry, though subject to growing media attention in the area of horse welfare and an inquisition by Congress in June 2008, doesn’t anticipate a similar attack. Most animal welfare groups have focused on the slaughter issue, not efforts to ban racing.

“There’s no question (Greyhound racing) is a cautionary tale,” NTRA president and chief executive officer Alex Waldrop said. “If we are complacent or want someone else to fix the problem, the problem won’t get fixed.

“Too many people have said (aftercare of racehorses) is an owner’s responsibility, but the racetracks have a role to play. It’s not enough to take a zero-tolerance position, because you then push the costs to retirement groups and others that may not be able to afford it.”

The alliance code of conduct states racetrack members must affiliate with and provide funding for recognized horse adoption programs that meet American Association of Equine Practitioners criteria. Tracks are “encouraged to implement a funding strategy that imposes the costs of funding on owners of horses through mutually agreed up methods such as per-start fees or purse check-off programs.”

Many tracks are working with horsemen’s groups to start their own programs or affiliate with existing retirement organizations. Martin of RCI said perhaps more can be done from a regulatory standpoint.

“Is it possible to make it a condition of licensing?” he said. “It’s really a question of enforcement and policing. It really is a question of morality, and whether you can legislate around it. If you don’t have morality in your soul to take care of animals, you shouldn’t be in the sport.”

Waldrop indicated there’s a chance Congress could introduce legislation—maybe even before the May 2 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I)—to federally regulate horse racing. There were calls for such legislation after last year’s congressional subcommittee hearing.

Waldrop and others believe Congress will be too preoccupied with national economic issues. But they said the new Democratic Congress shouldn’t be underestimated.

“This is going to be an activist Congress,” said Keeneland president Nick Nicholson, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based American Horse Council. “It’s time to pay attention.”

And of the animal rights issue, Martin said:  “It’s on the radar screen.”