During Kentucky Derby week 2021, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, and various activists were out to spoil the party.  PETA had a mobile billboard circling in front of the entrance to Churchill Downs with a message to “Practice Moral Distancing,” meant obviously to discourage the public from patronizing racing at Churchill Downs owing to horse fatalities at the track. 

On another front, there were the predictable annual calls for Churchill Downs to abandon playing Stephen Foster’s allegedly racially offensive My Old Kentucky Home as the horses appear on the track for the Kentucky Derby post parade, which has been a tradition since 1921.

PETA’s phrase “Practice Moral Distancing” is cleverly crafted but is strangely out of sync with two contemporary groundbreaking advances in racehorse welfare, as though the organization is oblivious to these significant developments.

First, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020 was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump on December 27, 2020.  According to the preface to the law, the purpose is “To improve the integrity and safety of horseracing by requiring a uniform anti-doping and medication control program to be developed and enforced by an independent Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority.”  A nine-person board of directors, five from outside the horse racing industry, has just been appointed.  The directors are people of accomplishment with reputations for integrity.  Also, two standing committees—one for racetrack safety and another for anti-doping and medication control—have been filled with an impressive cross section of knowledgeable individuals of note.

Second, the 2021 Kentucky Derby was run absent the controversial drug furosemide, better known as Lasix, which is a diuretic used to inhibit exercise-induced pulmonary bleeding.  The ban on furosemide will gradually be extended to other stakes races.  The commendable fact is, the equine athletes in the 2021 Kentucky Derby were held to a medication standard stricter than those for human athletes in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and most other sports.

PETA’s reaction to these giant steps forward? Rather than offer encouragement and focus on the enormous progress American horse racing and Churchill Downs have made recently in addressing concerns from within and outside the industry, including from PETA, the powers that be at PETA chose instead to objurgate Churchill Downs with an inflammatory message on a mobile billboard.  Judging from the size of the television audience for the 2021 Derby and the buoyant betting handle, PETA’s tactic was ineffectual.

The lesson for PETA is that positive reinforcement is the most effective way to change behavior—like the collaborative approach of the U. S. Humane Society. But PETA’s actions–its adversarial stance and failure to give credit where credit is due–imply that its underlying agenda is to stridently work for abolishment of racing rather than to support reform.


People interpret My Old Kentucky Home to fit their preconceived notions, but the historical evidence is persuasive that Stephen Foster’s intent in composing the song was the precise opposite of what critics assert. The song was meant to convey an anti-slavery theme rather than glorifying enslavement. If critics educated themselves about the origin of the song, rather than jumped to conclusions based on hearsay and incorrect information, their objections would not only go away, but the song would be viewed in a new and favorable light.

An article in Smithsonian Magazine stated that My Old Kentucky Home Goodnight, written by Pittsburgh resident Foster, “was an anti-slavery song, inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  The article went on: “Few of those singing along…may realize that the original lyrics were not a ‘Dixie’-esque paean but actually a condemnation of Kentucky’s enslavers…  As Foster wrote it, ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ is actually the lament of an enslaved person who has been forcibly separated from his family and his painful longing to return to the cabin with his wife and children.”

Renowned abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglas wrote—in My Bondage and My Freedom—that the song “awakens sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish.”

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