deadliest racetracks” in America and reported that the track had lost 43 thoroughbreds to racing injuries since 2016, an average of 2.42 per 1,000 starts, which was 50 percent higher than the national average during the same time.
Under pressure from animal rights groups and a growing public perception that horse racing is cruel, Churchill Downs recently joined a coalition of racetracks that is seeking a ban on raceday medication for all of their 2-year-old races beginning next year and to extend that practice for stakes races — the sport’s highest level — in 2021.
It also announced that it would build an $8 million equine hospital, hire an equine medical director and create a national Office of Racing Integrity to develop best practices and research, but it has declined to endorse the bill.
“With their track record, they should be running toward this legislation,” Arthur Hancock said. “This is a life raft being thrown from the Titanic, but instead you got 55 different fiefdoms all going their own way while our history is going down.”
After the filly Eight Belles broke her ankles at the finish of the 2008 Kentucky Derby and was euthanized, Guillermo, the PETA leader, made making horse racing safer and more humane a priority. She lives in Northern California, where the animal rights movement is particularly strong. In California, just 600,000 signatures on a petition would prompt a ballot initiative on whether horse racing should continue to exist. That prompted the Stronach Group to issue the strongest rules on the care of horses in the United States.
Guillermo is not done. She wants the sport to eliminate all medications in the two weeks before a race, bar trainers with multiple medication violations, mandate complete public transparency of injury and medication records, end whipping and switch to high-quality synthetic tracks.
“You can’t tell me that the trainers and veterinarians and racetracks have done all that they can to protect the horses,” she said.
The deaths at Santa Anita have prompted an investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office; condemnations from elected officials, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, and calls to shut down the sport altogether.
“We can’t let that happen,” Walker Hancock said.
Like his father, Seth, and uncle Arthur, Walker Hancock was born in Kentucky in a house that has stood on the Bluegrass since 1865.
Like them, he has mowed its 3,000 acres, thrown countless tons of hay and each spring has pulled foals from mares and then watched them grow into racehorses.
Like them, he recognizes the paradox that what built one of America’s oldest sports — the love of the thoroughbred — has the potential to put it out of business.
“We got to start proving that we are doing all that we can to do the best for these horses,” he said. “If not, we are out of business and we should be.”
Follow Joe Drape on Twitter: @joedrape.
Susan Beachy contributed reporting.