CONTRIBUTORS

Horses get raw deal in harness racing

Posted Oct. 21, 2011, at 5:24 p.m.

Earlier this year, Maine Friends of Animals submitted legislation to end the transportation of horses from and through Maine to slaughterhouses in Quebec. Horse slaughter is not allowed in the U.S. Unfortunately, the bill had to be tabled after heavy lobbying by the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association, the Farm Bureau and State House Republican leadership.

In our research on the growing number of unwanted horses in Maine and those being sent to slaughter in Canada, we discovered, aided by some harness racing insiders, some well-kept secret realities about the lives of harness-racing horses in Maine. Few of them spend bucolic lives frolicking in the fields, as the harness racing industry would have you believe.

We do not wish to paint all standardbred racing owners with the same brush, but certain abusive practices are not uncommon, especially the overbreeding. Horses are often kept in stalls as long as 22 hours a day, standing in their own urine and feces. Horses are forced to train before they are 2 years old, before bone growth plates have matured, making them more subject to injuries and eventually less adoptable.

Veterinarian care is expensive and needed care is sometimes dispensed according to the horse’s success on the track. Drugging horses to enhance performance or to allow an injured animal to race is common practice, but there is not sufficient oversight to stop it. Drugging has a documented long and shady history in the industry.

Horses have been beaten during and after races. Excessive race whipping, which causes welts and/or brings blood to horses’ faces, is prevalent and repeated. Fines are minimal and considered a cost of doing business. Repeat whipping offenders are rarely suspended.

The Maine Harness Racing Commission that purportedly oversees and regulates the industry does not act as an objective, independent regulatory agent, but serves the industry’s interests.

Standardbred breeders, whose purpose is to continually produce new winners for Maine’s harness racing tracks, are escalating the crisis of unwanted horses. Horses are raced from 18 months to the age of four or five. Then they typically become unwanted. Horses may live to the age of 30. What happens to them after their short racing careers?

More off-the-track standardbred horses are in need of rescue in Maine than any other type of horse. Without enough humane retirement options, the majority are sold to the highest bidder and sent to Quebec’s slaughterhouses. “Killer buyers” can load horses into their trailers right at the race track.

The entire process — the auction, the brutal methods of transportation, feedlots, the terror of the slaughter plants, everything up to and including their death — is inhumane.

Harness racing survives only because of a $2 million subsidy from casino revenue each year. In 1990 with the industry in full panic, the solution was monies from off-track betting parlors. Then in 2003, the solution was giving the industry money from the state’s share of slot machine revenues. Yet the Bangor and Scarborough tracks still often run in the red and audiences continue to decline. And there is no evidence anywhere that slot machines have or will revive harness racing.

It is time we pull back the curtain and expose the harness racing industry for what it is — a miserable life for horses, a business left to regulate itself and a significant cause of unwanted horses and horse slaughter. It is an outdated, inhumane and dying form of entertainment. Nature smiled and opened a generous hand when she gave man the horse. This magnificent animal has served us in so many ways, for so long, so well and so nobly. It deserves better.

Vote No on Question 2.

Robert Fisk Jr. is president and director of Maine Friend’s of Animals and based in Falmouth.

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