The deadly truth about Golden Gate Fields

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Berkeley has long prided itself in being a bastion of ethics, equality and kindness where all beings are valued and treated with respect. Unfortunately, we do not always uphold these virtuous notions we so proudly champion. Look no further for an example of hypocrisy than Golden Gate Fields, the racetrack that straddles both Berkeley and Albany, where horses have been being raced to death regularly since 1941. Within the California statewide annual average of 200 to 300 horse deaths, an average of 30 horses die on this particular racetrack every year. It is shocking that such unimaginable cruelty is continuously allowed to happen here in our very own backyard. This antiquated and deadly slaughter must be put to an end.

The reason for the racetrack’s lengthy survival is simple: The U.S. equine gambling industry generates $102 billion in economic activity each year. Of this, $7 billion originates in California. Indeed, our so-called ethical bubble is making a healthy cut from Golden Gate Fields’ taxes. Horse racing is big money, and the horses are paying the ultimate price.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 horses are killed racing and training across the United States each year. Hundreds more die back in their stalls. Thousands more are slaughtered after they are no longer monetarily useful. John Holland, president of the Equine Welfare Alliance, reports “The problem is that the entire (horse racing) industry is a conveyor belt for slaughter,’’ His nonprofit organization is dedicated to ending the slaughter of American horses.

Alex Waldrop, former president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, estimates that 7,500 thoroughbreds a year are slaughtered for human consumption. Kentucky Derby champ Ferdinand was slaughtered after his breeding days in Japan were done, and Exceller, a million-dollar racehorse who was inducted into the National Racing Museum’s Hall of Fame, was killed at a slaughterhouse.

From start to finish, the life of a racehorse is anything but glamorous. Young foals are cruelly separated from their mothers and mercilessly broken to submit to human commands. Then, from as early as 2 years old, when their skeletal structures are still vulnerably soft and far from fully developed, racehorses are put into hard training.  Continuous, forced acceleration to high speeds around tight corners makes bone breakage inevitable. Painful jockey whips and cocktails of drugs to mask the pain make matters even worse. 

The most recent California Horse Racing Board, or CHRB, Postmortem Program report admits that broken legs and ankles “are the single major cause of fatal racehorse injuries, both racing and training, accounting for nearly 50 percent of all musculoskeletal fatalities.” They go on to admit that stress fractures from previous training and racing cause cumulative weaknesses leading to “nearly 90% of musculoskeletal racing and training fatalities.” In an email, national horse racing expert Patrick Battuello wrote, “From breeding for speed, to employing pubescent bodies, to the incessant grinding – not to mention the commodification – of those bodies, to forcing them to run at an unnatural rate, in an unnatural way, and through unnatural means, horse racing guarantees killing. Guarantees.” 

Furthermore, young racehorses are often confined to their stables for 23 hours each day, unable to naturally exercise and socialize with other animals as they do in the wild. Many of these captive horses develop recognizable symptoms of psychological animal distress, such as wind-sucking and repetitive swaying from side to side, also commonly seen in circus elephants and bears. 

According to Deniz Bolbol of the American Wild Horse Campaign, wild horses are thought to have among the most sophisticated and complex social structures of any wildlife in North America. Racing captivity not only takes away their companionship and freedom but also causes unnatural stress to the point of irreversible psychological problems. In the wild, a horse can live for an average of 30 years, compared to the alarming average age of 2 to 4 years for a racehorse.

 The CHRB is an independent entity empowered to license and regulate the horse racing gambling industry. According to Section 19481.7 of the Business and Professions Code, “The board may, at any time, immediately suspend a license to conduct a racing meeting when necessary to protect the health and safety of the horses or riders that are present at the racing meeting.” But despite the horrifying deaths that happen regularly at racetracks in California, the CHRB has yet to revoke a single license.

Horse racing is a gambling industry, not a sport. These “star athletes” have not chosen to join this business. If an underaged human being was forced into a life-threatening activity, administered a cocktail of drugs, whipped repetitively and eventually died during the publicly broadcasted game, it would be considered horrifically criminal.

At its core, horse racing is legalized trafficking: the purchase, use and abuse of another living being for personal profit. How can Berkeley continue to identify itself as a community of equity and kindness while such atrocious activities persist within its perimeter? New legislation must be put into place not only in defense of innocent horses, but our city’s moral integrity as well.

Tweed Conrad is a Berkeley-based researcher and UC Berkeley alumna. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.