Blood On The Track In The Sport Of Kings
“Havnameltdown”. Never has a name been so apposite in describing the existential crisis affecting horse racing, the sport of kings, on both sides of the Atlantic.
In America, as the sport prepares to reach its annual apogee this Saturday with the running of the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York, the completion of the fabled Triple Crown, after the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, horse racing has been roiled by the growing scandal of horse deaths in both competition and training.
In England, the so-called sport of kings, which lost its biggest booster with the death of horse-mad Queen Elizabeth last September, has likewise been struck by growing public awareness of the health hazards to the equine stars, and growing protests by pro-animal activists which have disrupted or threatened to disrupt world famous events such as the National Hunt’s Grand National at Aintree, Liverpool, and the recently-run Epsom Derby, the greatest turf race in the world.
These few weeks of Spring and early Summer should be a magical time for horse racing but instead the sport has been dominated by death and disruption.
At Churchill Downs, the home of the storied Kentucky Derby, named after the English race, a dozen horses have died over the racing season.
And then on May 20 three-year-old thoroughbred Havnameltdown, trained by the controversial Bob Baffert, broke down, threw his jockey and had to be euthanised trackside at Pimlico racecourse in Baltimore just ahead of the running of the very Preakness Stakes itself, which was won, ironically, if not paradoxically, by another Baffert-trained horse, National Treasure.
It was Baffert’s record eighth win of the second leg of the Triple Crown.
Baffert, readers of iGamingFuture may recall, was the trainer of Medina Spirit, the horse which finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby before being disqualified for doping.
The 70-year-old trainer was subsequently banned from racing his horses at the storied Churchill Downs track until 2024.
Following the Kentucky Derby disgrace, in a further shocking turn of events, in December, 2021, Medina Spirit dropped dead during training at the Santa Anita race track in Arcadia, California, north east of Los Angeles.
Hall of Shamer
Despite his horse racing Hall of Fame status, Baffert, for some, has also been branded a “Hall of Shamer”.
According to an investigation by the hallowed Washington Post, at least 74 horses have died while in the care of the California-based trainer between 2000 and 2021 – more than all but two out of hundreds of trainers operating in the state.
Referring to the death of Havnameltdown, Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said: “Pimlico should have followed Churchill Downs’ example and barred Bob Baffert from the track.
“The tragic death of Havnameltdown is the latest in a long list of fatalities. The racing industry must kick out the bad guys or it will have blood on its hands as well as blood on its tracks.”
PETA believes that horse racing in America is facing an existential end game.
For decades racetrack betting was the only legal way for millions of Americans, in many areas, to gamble.
But the advent of iGaming and growing legalisation of sports betting across the nation has severely impacted the popularity of horse racing.
Although famous events, such as those of the Triple Crown, remain immensely popular, the number of horse races run has fallen from a peak of 74,071 in 1989 to 33,453 last year.
Just one more tragedy, similar to the death of Havnameltdown, could spell the end of the industry, warned PETA’s Guillermo.
PETA has yet to emulate the “reckless and dangerous” behaviour of Animal Rising activists–as described by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA)–, who tried to disrupt this year’s running of both the Grand National steeplechase on April 15 and flat Epsom Derby on June 3.
Across the silver pond in Elmont, New York, Forte is the 3-1 favourite in this Saturday’s US$1.5 million classic mile-and-a-half (12 furlough) Belmont Stakes, joined by Angel of Empire at 4-1 and Preakness Stakes winner National Treasure at 6-1.
It would appear that for US horse racing the stakes have never been higher.