The Philadelphia Inquirer recently published an article titled “Betting on Horses’ Lives.”  The piece began “Racehorses Are Dying in Staggering Numbers at Pennsylvania tracks.” 

The author, Sam Wood, cited statistics: “Since 2010, state racing officials have tallied more than 1,400 thoroughbred deaths,” most as the result of catastrophic injuries and some via natural causes.  He quoted testimony from Stephanie Beattie, the former president of the Pennsylvania HBPA, at a 2017 trial in a “sweeping doping case,” that “up to 98% of racehorses–including her own–were illegally drugged to block pain and increase performance.”

The article went on to assert, without citing evidence, that slot revenue diverted to horse racing subsidies encourage “owners to put weak and injured horses onto the track for what turn out to be fatal runs?”  Apparently, horse racing has received more state money in the last decade, $3 billion, than any other industry.  Moreover, Wood says that, predictably, in the opinion of animal-rights activists, horse racing is so inherently hazardous to horses that it is “irredeemable.”

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf wants to take $199 million a year from racing subsidies to provide scholarships to college and university students.  Agricultural commissioner and Wolf appointee Russell Redding, unsurprisingly, is also opposed to subsidies, even though the racing and breeding businesses in Pennsylvania reportedly account for some 15,000 jobs.

Although the article is highly negative and lacks sufficient balance, it is mostly factual, including its discussion of high-profile criminal convictions of racing insiders.  In addition, Stuart Janney, chairman of the Jockey Club, and prominent owner George Strawbridge are quite candid in their assessment and lament of what has transpired in Keystone state racing. 

The view here is that shameful unethical (and sometimes criminal) actions by many of the players in Pennsylvania horse racing have given racing such a bad public image that it is a steep uphill climb now to mount a winning case as to why slot subsidies should continue.  And the new federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act likely comes too late to make much of a difference.  A “Give us one last chance” plea will ring hollow.  All the public knows is that a massive amount of taxpayer dollars has gone to support what has been a troubled racing enterprise.

Given the choice of subsidizing a gambling activity (most people don’t see the agribusiness side) versus subsidizing higher education students, taxpayers will overwhelmingly opt for the latter.  The best that Pennsylvania horse racing can salvage is for the sport/business to retain some state support and become more able to stand on its own.

Pennsylvania horse farms have bred the third-most Breeders’ Cup winners of all the states. It is sad to see these small agribusinesses and a way of life jeopardized by what has transpired at Pennsylvania racetracks.

Click here to read the Philadelphia Inquirer article.

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