PD Editorial: To keep horse racing healthy, make it safer

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The annual Sonoma County Fair is underway, and it’s proving as fun as ever — for the humans. Horses, not to anthropomorphize them, might worry about getting hurt at the races. If horse racing is to remain a county fair tradition, organizers and regulators must honestly assess the situation and implement better measures to protect everyone and every animal involved.

As The Press Democrat’s Phil Barber reported, a comparatively high number of horses are not surviving their races at the fairgrounds racetrack. Over the past three years, the track had 2.62 deaths per 1,000 individual starts. That was the highest rate among reporting tracks in the country.

Not good, but perhaps not as bad as it sounds. In those three years, there were a grand total of four horse deaths at the track and only 1,524 starts. One more or less death could swing the rate significantly when there is such a small sample size.

On the other hand, while one death per year seems the norm, the number of races has declined by more than half over the past decade. Fewer races but the same number of deaths means a higher rate because #math.

Typically a horse doesn’t die during a race but is injured and subsequently euthanized.

The challenges are not unique to Santa Rosa. Track deaths are occurring with greater frequency across the country, puzzling experts. The Santa Anita track in Southern California has come under particular scrutiny for a spate of recent deaths.

This couldn’t be happening at a worse time for horse racing. Americans are less interested in the sport than they once were. Tracks around the country are scaling back, and some are closing. For example, Portland Meadows in Oregon (three-year death rate 1.90 per 1,000 starts) ran its last race this spring after 73 years in operation.

No one, aside from some protesters, wants to see that happen in Sonoma County. The track and its races are a tradition here. So something must change.

Change needn’t be a bad thing. In past years, kids chased piglets. Perhaps not the cruelest event for the little porkers but almost certainly a terrifying one. This year, the kids ran obstacles with oiled watermelons. We don’t want to meet the cold-hearted child-hater who didn’t smile watching those exuberant children race.

The best hope for horse racing is to show the public that all the stakeholders — the state, which regulates horse racing, horse owners and tracks — are serious about improving safety.

As a society, we impose commonsense protections for humans all the time. Look no further than new rules limiting contact for youth football practices, concussion protocols and baseball helmets with more face protection. Comparable care should extend to the horses that have no choice in whether they participate in racing.

A start could be California’s tracks adhering to international racing standards instead of much-less-stringent American ones and improving surfaces that worry some jockeys and horse owners.

To leave horses vulnerable is little better than animal cruelty, and then the protesters would be right and racing would have no future. Let’s not let that happen in Sonoma County and California.

You can send a letter to the editor at

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