Updated on 12/07/2016 5:22PM

Experts urge racing to adopt more-humane policies for horses

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TUCSON, Ariz. – The racing industry should stake out defensible positions in its efforts to combat attacks from the animal-rights movement by adopting humane practices but should also be wary of partnering with animal-welfare organizations, participants at a morning session focusing on the movements said on Wednesday at the Symposium on Racing and Gaming in Tucson.

The panel, entitled “The Animal Rights Agenda: An Issue That Can No Longer Be Ignored,” sought to inform the racing industry about the tactics used by the movements in bringing pressure on businesses like racing that use animals. It also underlined the increasingly contentious issues surrounding the topic in racing, which is itself divided on the proper response to criticism of the sport and its practices.

The panelists themselves were far more sympathetic to the prevailing notion among most racing participants that the movements rely on propaganda and ultimately reject finding common ground with the industries they attack. That belief, however, is countered by a sizeable number of people within racing who believe the industry itself is in dire need of adopting more humane practices and moving far more aggressively in addressing the post-racing needs of its horses.

Although Marsha Kelly, a principal in the public-relations firm MSK Ventures, said that racing must “claim the high ground” by making sure the sport treats its animals humanely, she also warned the industry that it should not seek partners in the animal-welfare movement, specifically calling the Humane Society of the United States a “Trojan horse” that seeks to cozy up to industries in order to eventually ban them.

The claim resonated with many in the audience who have objected to the formation this summer of a “horse-advisory council” within the HSUS that was supported by several influential organizations, including The Jockey Club. At the time of the council’s formation, Wayne Pacelle, the president of the HSUS, said that the council would allow the HSUS to work hand-in-hand with the racing industry to address “the doping of horses” and “other chronic problems within the industry.”

“Be careful of inviting those guys [the HSUS] into the tent,” Kelly said, calling the leaders of the organization, and Pacelle in particular, disingenuous in their efforts to work with animal-use industries.

Joe DeFrancis, the former owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico in Maryland who is a member of the HSUS advisory panel, said the accusation by Kelly “is absolutely preposterous and without even the tiniest scintilla of factual support.”

DeFrancis also provided an excerpt from testimony that Pacelle made in front of a committee of the House of Representatives in 2012 in which he said, “I want to underscore that the HSUS does not oppose horse racing.”

In other remarks, Kelly and her co-panelist, Patti Strand, a dog breeder who is an outspoken opponent of the animal-rights movement – at least the more radical elements of that movement – said that most organizations in both movements are ultimately seeking the elimination of all animal-use businesses. They both said that racing needs to be vocal about the measures it is taking to protect its animals, in an attempt to mitigate against the inevitable attacks from critics.

Kelly said that “it is easy to find one bad apple,” but she said that the general public would be sympathetic to industries that are making principled efforts to treat their animals humanely.

“The general public expects reasonable good faith and conscientious behavior,” Kelly said. “They don’t expect perfection.”

Following the end of the prepared remarks, Joe Harper, the president of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Southern California – where the animal-rights and animal-welfare movements are particularly strong – addressed the panel from the audience, recounting his experiences this year with protestors affiliated with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The organization routinely organized protests outside Del Mar’s gates during the track’s summer and fall meets.

Harper warned the racing industry that it needs to take the protests seriously.

“You better get your act together,” Harper said. “They are coming to all your racetracks. People better understand the magnitude of this. This is the most dangerous thing to come to racing in my 40 years at racetracks.”

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