Most of us care about horse racing for two minutes every year, which isn’t much time at all considering a year contains 525,600 minutes. (If there’s a Triple Crown in the works, add another four minutes and a few seconds.)
That tiny annual sliver of our lives comes around again Saturday with the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby. To the vast majority of Americans, that is the width and breadth of horse racing. It’s what we know of the sport, and it’s all we really care to know about it, because the sports calendar is packed and who really needs another set of athletes in our lives right now?
That said, this group of athletes — namely, racehorses — is most definitely in need of our attention these days.
Over the winter and into the first week of spring, 23 horses were euthanized after breaking down at just one track, famed Santa Anita in Southern California. As external scrutiny and animal-rights protests grew, the track was shut down for nine days, after which its owner, Belinda Stronach, announced immediate rule changes, including a ban on the race-day diuretic Lasix, a medication to prevent bleeding in the horse’s lungs that is used by almost every U.S. thoroughbred; limits on other medications and anabolic steroids that can mask a horse’s pain and injuries; increased accountability in veterinary records and a mandate that the jockey’s whip be used only for safety reasons.
An exercise rider guides a horse to the track during morning workouts at Churchill Downs. (Photo: Jamie Rhodes, USA TODAY Sports)
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The powers that be in California horse racing predictably pushed back, blaming an unusually rainy winter for precarious track conditions and asking for any modifications to be phased in slowly, if at all.
Meanwhile, the Louisville Courier Journal reported in March that Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, had lost 43 thoroughbreds to racing injuries since 2016, a rate of 2.42 deaths per 1,000 starts, 50 percent higher than the national average over that period.
“It really is one of those moments where we need to step back and say we’ve got to do this better, and we’ve got to change how we’re doing it,” track consultant Mick Peterson, director of the University of Kentucky’s agriculture equine programs, told the Courier Journal. “Because otherwise the industry is not going to survive. People don’t accept (racing fatalities) the way they did.”
As horse racing approaches its Super Bowl weekend, it is a sport in trouble. PETA is on alert. The L.A. District Attorney’s office has assigned investigators to look into what has happened at Santa Anita. Critics wonder if the sport can ultimately survive: it's not going away next week or next month, but what about over the next few decades, say, 30 years into the future?
It’s an interesting question. It would be logical to encourage a leader to step up and help the sport navigate these difficult times, except that there is no leader in horse racing. This is a sport without a commissioner. It’s a sport without a national governing body. It’s a sport of state fiefdoms that is in serious need of help.
To that end, the Horseracing Integrity Act was introduced in Congress in March, calling for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to oversee a uniform standard for medication and drug testing in racehorses.
But even if the problem of over-medication in the deaths of horses is solved, does that ultimately save horse racing? Or is the sport simply heading toward a slow, natural, demographic death?
As racehorse owner Mike Repole once told me, “Right now, when you think of who’s the customer for horse racing, it’s an 82-year-old man smoking a cigar. Every day you look in the obituaries, we just lost a racing fan, and we’re not getting any new racing fans.”
But just when you begin to picture a time with no horse racing, Kentucky Derby weekend approaches, and with it a reminder of just how big of a cultural phenomenon this sport can be.
Will horse racing still be around in 30 years? At moments over the winter, it was hard to imagine it will. But when you take in the grandeur of the Derby this Saturday, it’s hard to imagine it won’t.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' columnist Christine Brennan on Twitter @cbrennansports.
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