PETA Spurs Action for Horses Abused in Unlicensed Racing

The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), at its April 20 meeting, approved a new regulation to crack down on unlicensed Quarter Horse racing events that are increasingly common in California and across the United States — events involving blatant cruelty to horses as well as dangers for human participants. The new regulation, as proposed, will prohibit California licensees “from participating in or from even being present at a non-recognized location where match racing is taking place” — penalizing jockeys, trainers, and others with fines up to $100,000 and license suspensions. The regulation will be open for public comment for 45 days, and then the CHRB will hold a final vote.

This action came in response to a presentation by Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), at the CHRB’s December 15, 2022 meeting — where she convinced CHRB members that although they lack jurisdiction over unlicensed match racing, they can partially thwart it by punishing individuals who participate in both licensed and unlicensed racing.

After PETA provided additional evidence, the CHRB decided to move forward — making California the first US state to take action against unlicensed horse racing. Participants in the April 20 CHRB meeting said: “This action recognizes that match racing, which is taking place at ranches and other private locations in the state, is harmful to horses….It’s a small piece, but it’s groundbreaking, and hopefully other states will follow….There will be other pieces, including amending the state statute. And now there’s real talk of some sort of federal legislation.”

PETA first brought national attention to the many problems with unlicensed Quarter Horse racing, through an undercover investigation conducted in Georgia from June 2021 through April 2022. The results of that investigation were reported and independently confirmed in the August 5, 2022 Washington Post piece A horse track with no rules (in reference to which I wrote the August 10 letter to the editor This is no sport). In recent months, racing industry media has done additional reporting — for example, in the Paulick Report March 23 article They’re Going To Take Down All Of Racing: Here’s Why Legitimate Tracks Should Be Concerned About The Bush Circuit.

The first problem is the sheer scale of unlicensed racing. In California alone, there are eight known venues for Quarter Horse match racing — only one fewer than the number of sanctioned tracks for Thoroughbreds or Quarter Horses in the state. And nationwide, Dr. Angela Pelzel-McCluskey, equine epidemiologist for the US Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS), has documented the existence of at least 111 unlicensed tracks in 28 states.

Second, there is the harmful and probably often illegal drugging of horses. PETA investigators and Washington Post reporters saw numerous horses being injected immediately before races at the Georgia track. Dozens of syringes they then collected for analysis at a Racing Medication & Testing Consortium (RMTC) accredited lab were found to contain cocaine, methamphetamine, methylphenidate (Ritalin), and caffeine. RMTC executive director Mary Scollay, quoted in the Washington Post piece, said there could be no explanation for these injections other than to influence the horses’ performance. “I would imagine that methamphetamine in an injectable form would get the attention of the FDA, which is not always an easy thing to do,” Scollay said. “It might get the attention of DEA as well.”

Third, there are the gruesome horse deaths. PETA cited more than a dozen known deaths of horses at the Georgia track between 2018 and 2022, either witnessed firsthand by its investigators or documented through social media or track video. One piece of video footage, for example, showed a horse struggling to stand with a broken front leg before being shot in the head and dragged off with a tractor. The track owner told the Washington Post: “We have done that more than once, and we will continue to do that, because horses get injured on the track all the time.”

Fourth, there is disease transmission. In the Washington Post article, Dr. Angela Pelzel-McCluskey of USDA APHIS reported over 900 total documented cases of often-fatal equine infectious anemia (EIA) and piroplasmosis since 2008 — primarily among Quarter Horse race horses who had been injected by unlicensed handlers using contaminated needles. The diseases can spread naturally, as well  — EIA by flies and piroplasmosis by ticks — so the presence of unlicensed tracks also puts at risk any horses who are stabled nearby.

Last but not least, are the connections with other dangerous and illegal activities. PETA’s investigation documented several jockey accidents resulting in death or dismemberment, in addition to the use of jockeys who were just 13 or 14 years old. The Paulick Report article described unlicensed tracks as “largely ungoverned spaces that allow for a wide range of organized criminal activity, to include human trafficking, unlicensed alcohol sales, tax evasion, [as well as] turning a blind or knowing eye to illicit drugs and shocking devices that can injure or maim racing horses.”

A major focus of the Greg Fund, since its inception on Earth Day 2016, has been supporting PETA’s work to end abuse of horses in the racing industry. The Greg Fund also emphasizes support for animal advocacy programs that simultaneously benefit humans. I am especially proud, therefore, that PETA has spurred this new California Horse Racing Board action to protect the most abused race horses while also protecting people.

There is much more work to be done, in California and US nationwide — but this is an important step in the right direction.

Photo source: PETA April 20, 2023 blog post PETA Investigation Leads to Big Progress for Horses Abused in California’s Underground Racing

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