PETA Demonstrators in front of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority office May 6.

PETA Demonstrators in front of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority office May 6.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Officials: Don't Discount Welfare Groups

Animal welfare groups targeing horse racing have gained clout on Capitol Hill.

Though their views and actions may at times be considered extreme and bizarre by some, animal rights and welfare groups have a large constituency, have proven effective at making their point, and shouldn’t be disregarded when they seize on an issue, officials said.

Two organizations—the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—have weighed in on the breakdown of the filly Eight Belles in her gallop-out after the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Eight Belles, who finished second in the race, broke both ankles and was subsequently euthanized on the racetrack.

That Eight Belles’ death has generated such outcry is no surprise. Racing breakdowns that have led to the death of horses—and jockeys—for the most part have flown under the radar screens of activists and national media. But a breakdown soon after the sport’s most visible race offered too big an opportunity.

The organizations are well-funded, and utilize staff and volunteers. The HSUS, according to its 2006 annual report, received $82.4 million in contributions and grants that year, and spent $17.5 million on campaigns, litigation, and expenses. PETA in 2007 received $28.5 million in contributions, and spent about $14 million on international grassroots campaigns, public outreach, and education, according to its financial statement.

The HSUS, a welfare agency, says it has almost 10 million members and constituents. PETA, which focuses on the rights of animals, says it has 1.8 million members and supporters. PETA often is accused by opponents of being radical and of euthanizing many animals rather than saving them.

Legislatively, the groups are active in the debate over horse slaughter, an issue that directly impacts horse racing. PETA has gone so far as to say horse racing should end.

“They are very well-funded and have a great deal of public relations experience,” Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, said of the groups. “I think they have to be taken seriously. This is not a new issue to some of these organizations.

“Even if you disagree with some of their specific suggestions, you have to pay attention to what they say. They have an awful lot of constituents.”

Greg Means of the Alpine Group, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s lobbyist in Washington, D.C., said the HSUS, PETA, and other special-interest groups can’t be ignored. He said they are particularly “savvy” with electronic communications to constituents and lawmakers.

“I think they have to be taken seriously in the climate that is Washington, D.C.,” Means said. “They have increased their efforts; we’ve seen that in the horse slaughter issue. The Humane Society’s involvement has pushed that issue further down the road. They have ramped up their efforts on the Congressional front.”

In 2007, broad language inserted into the 2008 United States Department of Agriculture appropriations bill could have effectively stopped the transportation of horses across state lines. The NTRA, AHC, and other groups lobbied to have it removed given it could have brought horse racing and sales to a halt. It is believed the animal welfare groups were behind the language.

The HSUS hasn’t been as visible as PETA on the Derby issue, but HSUS president and chief executive officer Wayne Pacelle discussed the circumstances surrounding Eight Belles in a blog entry that shows knowledge of the state of the horseracing industry.

“The tragic death of Eight Belles, as discomfiting and disturbing as it was, is unlikely to reorder our priorities,” Pacelle wrote in the blog. “We’ll say a few words about horse racing, as do the commentators and industry press, but we’ll return to our priorities in a couple of days.

“But that’s a mistake for us all. This industry has not had a rigorous critic to set it in the straight and narrow, and major problems have grown and festered. It’s time for the Thoroughbred industry to deal with its problems, and if it does not, animal advocates may well decide they can no longer continue to give the industry a free pass.”

The racing industry in recent years has been faced with the possibility of federal legislation in the areas of jockey welfare and race-day medication, including anabolic steroids, with efforts tied to proposed revision of the Interstate Horseracing Act, which governs all-important interstate simulcasts and account wagering.

National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and chief executive officer Alex Waldrop in late March said he expects legislation of some sort will be introduced in Congress regarding use of steroids in sports. It could be tied to the IHA, he said.

Meanwhile, the industry’s delay in formulating a comprehensive plan for wagering security could also attract lawmakers’ interest. Now, horse safety and welfare issues could be added to the discussion on Capitol Hill after the Derby incident.

“Whether this resurrects interest (in federal legislation), time will tell,” Hickey said.

Questions are being raised as to whether the Thoroughbred industry can handle the latest developments internally, or whether it needs crisis-management assistance from outside the industry. Part of the debate is whether the negativity will blow over quickly or linger long enough to damage the sport.