Running for Their Lives
December 26th, 2014
In September 2014 a few days before it closed for good, the ramshackle stables at Boston’s Suffolk Downs Race Track remind me of another now defunct Boston institution, Filene’s Basement at Downtown Crossing.
In an effort to find them homes, volunteers from an animal rescue organization called the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses but better known as CANTER have organized an open house to introduce soon-to-be out-of-work racehorses at bargain basement prices to potential buyers who agree not to race them anymore.
Price tags hang on stall doors. A tall rangy chestnut coated colt meets three rather small women evaluating his potential as a riding horse. There are over 100 horses to consider — tall or short, old or young, mare or gelding or stallion.
Most of these young horses spent their racing careers at this track, the bottom rung of the racing ladder, competing in low end claiming races with hardly a fan in sight. Their owners are cutting their losses knowing they won’t be successful at tracks in other states where the horses are faster and the purses bigger. These aren’t pleasure horses. Without Suffolk Downs, they can’t earn their oats.
I am asked many times if I am looking for a horse to take home as I walk the grounds of this once popular local attraction. I wish I could but I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a house on a 3,000 square foot lot. And I already own a rescued racehorse, City Fortune, aka Missy, whom I support as she lives out her retirement in a large grass-rich Virginia pasture.
Besides, I keep reminding myself, I am visiting this racetrack, long an afterthought on the horse racing scene, to see whether a story about the failure of Suffolk Downs can revive my enthusiasm for this once popular American sport.
Suffolk Downs ostensibly closed because it didn’t get a gambling license. But the truth is it closed because horse racing lost its fans. The situation is so dire that the industry stopped publishing annual attendance statistics.
I can cite a litany of reasons as to why it happened but for most Americans, horse racing is simply irrelevant. Horses were an integral part of American existence when Suffolk Downs opened in 1935 when there was roughly one horse for every nine Americans. Now there is one for every 87. They have been replaced by cars for transportation and football is the American sport.
I used to love horse racing but don’t anymore and I am not the only fan who has feels this way. Management consulting firm McKinsey, commissioned to study this issue by the US Jockey Club, found that in 2011 only 22% of the American public has a positive view of racing and of that group only a third are proud to be fans.
I don’t need McKinsey to tell me why and when I fell out of love with the sport. It was in 2005, when I first laid eyes on the photos of Watrals Abiskipper, a slaughter bound racehorse from Finger Lakes Race Track in Upstate New York. Though horse slaughter was illegal in America, she was located near the Canadian border. A short trip to a Canadian abattoir and she could easily end up as the main course in a fine Parisian restaurant. A rescue organization was desperately seeking someone to pay her owner a price equivalent to what he would get for her as meat and give her a new home.
It was at a certain time of my life when rescuing an unwanted racehorse was just what my nurturing soul needed. I was living in North Carolina and soon to be an empty nester in a unsatisfying career as a management consultant. A few emails and phone calls and she arrived in Southern Pines, via free transportation from a well known horse transportation company. A successful runner before her breakdown she was exhausted by the journey but sweet and well mannered.
“She looks like someone rode her hard and put her up wet”, said Kurt Vom Orde, the blacksmith charged with fixing her misshapen hooves when he saw her, using a euphemism for mistreatment. He had a lot of experience with horses like Abi and could see that much of what ailed her was a result of too much too soon with too little care. And then she was discarded. Who can love a sport that treats its athletes so poorly?
On the Sunday afternoon I visit Suffolk Downs, the sky is overcast and the humid air is heavy with melancholy and bitterness. With no races scheduled, the track is empty of horses and the air of hope that hung over the place for years during the competition for Boston’s only gaming license is gone. Without the added revenue from slot machines and table games which a casino located next the track would provide, the business of horse racing here is not profitable. So, the track’s owner, who propped it up for years, pulled the plug on Sept. 16, 2014, upon learning that the Massachusetts Gaming Commission denied the bid of Suffolk’s partner, casino operator Mohegan Sun.
The sense of loss is palpable. Hundreds of horses and people are suddenly out of work. I feel their pain, but I am torn. I understand that a casino would provide funds to prop up the racetrack but to what end?
Gaming revenues have done nothing to improve the sport according to horse racing expert Andrew Beyer in a 2012 Washington Post op ed article. It has not attracted more fans or more horses to tracks like Suffolk that have opened casinos.
Yet on this sad day at Suffolk, thanks to simulcasting — live races broadcast from several racetracks — gamblers gather in the club house, its air smoky and dank. The walls are lined with televisions. At the sound of a bugle playing “Call to the Post”, the gaggle of blue-collar, mostly middle aged or older men turn to stare intently at the screens. Between races, they study the Daily Racing Form, place bets, collect winnings, and chat with each other. I try to speak to these patrons but am shooed away by a security guard. Ownership wants to protect its customers from journalists, he tells me.
Rightly so. Simulcasting and on-line wagering are big business. In 2013, $11.5 billion was wagered on North American, horse races according to the Jockey Club. Of that, $10.2 billion was bet online and only $1.3 billion in person at the racetracks.
In the fall of 2013, only 7.6% of the money bet on races at Belmont Race Track in New York, home of the third leg of the Triple Crown, was bet in person at Belmont. The rest of the bets were placed online, according to Beyer. The New York Racing Association has estimated that over 25,000 people were betting on Belmont races online away from the track every day.
Who needs real horses? In a sign of the future of horse racing, bettors at many of the major racetracks and off-track betting facilities in the US can now wager on historical horse races using Instant Racing Terminals which draw on a library of 60,000 horse races already run.
Some of those races were run on this track where I find myself alone. The grandstand is empty. The paddock where the horses were saddled before a race is free of hoof prints and brightly colored flowers line the fence. The winner’s circle, next to the striped poles of the finish line, still looks ready to greet the next winner.
I walk the grounds, an unassuming square of approximately 170 acres in Revere bordered by triple decker houses on two sides, a tank farm, Wendy’s, and Super Stop’n’Shop on a third side, and the Belle Isle Marsh Reservation on the fourth. The dirt oval marks the final approach to runway 22R at Logan Airport.
Today, in the brief lull before another plane lands, the silence is filled by the clickety-clack of a Blue Line train and the voice of an announcer from another track broadcast over the loudspeakers.
Standing at the rail near the finish line, I recall the my last visit here in on a stifling day in July 2010. I stood at the exact same spot enjoying my proximity to the horses and the action.
In the fourth race, a $4500 claimer for fillies and mares, not 20 feet from me, a bay filly who reminds me of Abi was rounding the bend for the finish line competing gamely with a gaggle of other low level racers. Suddenly she somersaulted and hit the ground — as if a sniper had picked her off from the stands.
In racing parlance, this is known as a catastrophic breakdown. That term does no justice to the train wreck.
At the time, track announcer, TD Thornton, a former horse racing journalist and author of the 2007 book Not by a Long Shot: A Season at a Hard Luck Horse Track, a portrait of Suffolk Downs, announced nothing save “there’s a spill.”
Disoriented, the filly gamely struggled to stand on three legs as the equine ambulance pulled up. This is the only sport in which an ambulance literally follows the athletes as they compete, Thornton later observed to me.
Only a few racing fans and I bore witness to the poor girl’s demise as she was euthanized by injection, joining the 24 horses that on average die each week on American racetracks according to a 2012 New York Times study.
In her death rattle, with a loud bang, she hit the side of the horse ambulance. Her name was Queens Tempest. A cable was wrapped around her body, and the quiet hush of the surroundings was pierced by the sound of a winch dragging her corpse onto the ambulance. Her jockey was carried off in another ambulance, while heat stricken grooms led a new batch of cavorting young Thoroughbreds with their white bridles and colorful shadow rolls for the next race and an uncertain fate.
I love horses. In their presence, my blood pressure drops, and the tension that I often carry in my neck and shoulders disappears. It’s why equine-assisted therapy is a growing field for the treatment of PTSD victims.
Figuring this may be my last chance to see how the horses at Suffolk Downs live, I climb a fence on this sad Sunday, inexorably pulled to the stable area known in racing parlance as the “backside”. Here, horses co-exist with the underclass of workers inextricably linked to them: grooms, “hot walkers,” trainers, assistant trainers, and exercise riders.
Normally a security pass would be required to enter this area of a racetrack but I’m only asked by a kindly Latino man if I am looking for a horse to take home with me.
I am forever disabused of the notion that horse racing is the sport of kings. The so-called stables, in which 700 horses were living as of the day the track announced its closing, consists of row after row of long wooden tenement-like sheds that hadn’t been touched by a paint brush in years. Hardly a blade of grass or tree could be found. Rickety old mechanical hot walkers and concrete bunkers sprouted between the buildings.
Horses gaze at me soulfully as I pass, beckoning me to take them home. The fate of many is tenuous. They could end up at the New Holland auction or in Canadian slaughterhouses, according the Wild For Life Foundation, who says that an equivalent of 70% of the Thoroughbred horses born every year in the period from 2002 to 2010 ended up as a product in a butcher shop.
Suffolk Downs instituted a zero tolerance policy for horse slaughter in 2007 but its effectiveness is questionable. ”It is well-documented that many racehorses end up at slaughter auctions within a week of their last race, despite the fact that many tracks across the country have policies opposing this practice,” said Nancy Perry, the senior vice president for governmental relations for the American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, in a May 2013 interview.
Hang around horses long enough and they will break your heart. Believe me, I know. They are fragile creatures with an endless penchant for disease and injury.
Abi died a few years ago from the acute onset of a painfully debilitating hoof disease called laminitis, the same scourge that took the lives of Barbaro and Secretariat. The veterinarians at North Carolina State Animal Hospital didn’t know what triggered it and never suggested it was result of her racing career. It embarrasses me to say it, but I felt the pain of her death much more keenly than that of my father.
Abi didn’t die on the racetrack or at the slaughterhouse but nothing I saw at Suffolk Downs this day in September changed my mind about racing. It’s hard to imagine that football would continue to be America’s most popular sport if its players regularly died in nationally broadcast games or ended up as someone’s dinner in France.
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