08/17/2016 2:36PM

Hovdey: A shiny Pacific Classic vs. slogans of doom


On Saturday at Del Mar, racing fans will be treated to the best event offered in Southern California since the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park when California Chrome, Dortmund, and defending champion Beholder take the field for the 26th running of the $1 million Pacific Classic.

The crowd will be large, no doubt, and the day filled with long lines of shiny, happy people betting their money and consuming mass quantities of fish tacos, kettle corn, and Delmargaritas. The inconveniences, such as they are, should be well camouflaged by an atmosphere of high-stakes competition and golden sunshine, with the occasional ocean breeze blowing straight from the Chamber of Commerce.

Fair warning, though: Once parked in the main lot of the state fairgrounds, Del Mar’s customers must enter the track proper through a gantlet of black-clad protesters representing PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The protesters carry signs with Madison Avenue hooks (“Racing to the Grave,” “You Bet They Die”). They decry the tally of horses who have died during the current Del Mar meet (13 documented to date, divided between training and racing). They accuse arriving fans of willfully ignoring the carnage. They hand out leaflets that morph Del Mar’s marketing theme of “Cool as Ever” into “Cruel as Ever.”

Did I mention they wear black?

The effect of such protests varies. Local TV gives them a look every once in a while. Track officials are hands-off, ceding jurisdiction to the Fair Board, a state agency. A representative of the state’s attorney general has decided that such demonstrations are allowed access to public property. A racetrack security guard stands by as an observer, ready to call the local sheriff if needed.

An occasional burst of testosterone will flare, with a father taking exception to comments like, “How can you bring children to watch horses die?” For the most part, though, fans ignore the PETA phalanx.

This reporter, obviously having nothing better to do, lingered at the picket line last weekend and engaged some of the demonstrators in conversation.

In many ways, I’ve always envied the true believers – their commitment to a cause, their embrace of a detailed doctrine, their ability to fend off every argument. And let’s face it: Given such issues as medication, aftercare, and slaughter, horse racing provides a group like PETA plenty of grist.

Playing dumb (not a stretch), I was told by demonstrators that horse racing should be banned because the domestication of animals of any kind was a crime against nature. I was told that all horses raced on illegal drugs all of the time because they are all injured.

“California Chrome is racing here next weekend,” I was told by a demonstrator. “Did you know he has been racing on a broken foot – ever since he was 3, when he was stepped on in the race in New York?”

This was news to Art Sherman, and to California Chrome, who has won more than $9 million on that foot, which was badly cut but not broken in the 2014 Belmont Stakes.

“That illustrates the stark difference between PETA on the one hand and the Humane Society of the United States on the other,” said Joe De Francis, the former chairman of the Maryland Jockey Club who heads the National Horse Racing Advisory Council for the HSUS.

“By their very act in soliciting the formation of this council, HSUS has acknowledged that they’re not experts in horse racing and that they want to effect realistic and meaningful reforms,” De Francis said. “Whereas everything that I’ve ever read about PETA, or read what they’ve published themselves on their website, or seen them do leads me to believe that their ultimate goal is to abolish horse racing.”

Del Mar is hardly the first racetrack to be targeted by PETA demonstrations. Protestors descended upon the 2008 Preakness at Pimlico in the wake of the death of Eight Belles in the Derby two weeks earlier. A well-dressed PETA protester disrupted the 2012 Belmont Stakes winner’s-circle ceremony with a sign smuggled past guards. In 2014, PETA bankrolled a mobile billboard to drive around Churchill Downs during Derby week with the message: “Drugs. Breakdowns. Death. Horse racing is a bad bet.”

Now, listen to Humane Society president and chief executive Wayne Pacelle, who was instrumental in calling for the Horse Racing Advisory Council.

“We’re not against racing,” Pacelle has said. “We want it done well and humanely.”

“I would analogize racing’s issues to the concussion issue in football,” De Francis said. “Football’s initial reaction to try and sweep it under the rug was totally wrong. At this point, it’s not necessary to abolish the sport. But racing does need to try to think as constructively and creatively as it can regarding proactive steps it can take to minimize the danger and make the sport as safe as possible for its human and equine athletes.”

In the end, those who feel Thoroughbred racing is a worthwhile endeavor can view the PETA protests with pride in the protection of First Amendment Constitutional rights. They also can ignore what they hear and look elsewhere for the real work of reforming the sport they love. As De Francis noted: “When your message is grounded in logic and reasonableness and a measured approach, it’s always difficult to get it heard over the din of someone shouting an extremist approach.”