Horse racing fans wore more than just fancy hats and preppy blazers to the 2021 Belmont Stakes. As they walked past dozens of animal rights activists staging a protest at the main gate, they also wore blinders to avoid the images and messages on the posters. As one man said with a touch of guilt in his voice, “Let me just enjoy the horse race.”
The three hour protest, organized by the Albany-based advocacy group Horseracing Wrongs, generated mainstream TV and radio news coverage, so the messages about animal cruelty reached a mainstream public that is increasingly disenchanted with horse racing due to the spate of deaths reported in recent years. At Belmont Park alone, over 500 horses have died since 2009.
According to Patrick Battuello, the director of Horseracing Wrongs, the horses are victims of abuse for their entire lives. “They are torn from their mothers at birth. Their bodies are pounded years before they are done forming. They’re confined in stalls for over 23 hours a day. They’re socially isolated in spite of the fact that they’re herd animals. They’re drugged, doped and beaten with whips. They’re bought, sold and traded like inanimate objects. The vast majority of horses who don’t die on the tracks are killed in a slaughterhouse.”
Support for a ban on the horse racing industry began to take hold in the mainstream public in 2018 and 2019 after 35 horses died over the course of a few months at the Santa Anita racetrack. At the time, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Over time, Americans have to decide how much death they are willing to tolerate in this ancient sport.” Since then, both The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer have published editorials calling for an end to the horse racing industry.
While speaking to reporters during the protest at Belmont Park, activists made another case for a ban on horse racing: New York gives Belmont Stakes and other race tracks across the state over $220 million in taxpayer subsidies. Edita Birnkrant, the Executive Director of NYCLASS, said her organization is part of coalition of advocacy groups calling on state lawmakers to end the handouts and redirect the money to more worthy causes. “We want to defund horse racing,” said Birnkrant. “Our tax dollars should be used for healthcare or eduction, not for corporate welfare.”
Starting in mid-July, Horseracing Wrongs will stage protests at the Saratoga Race Track in Saratoga Springs, New York.