10/03/2008 12:00AM

If dog racing is voted out, horses could be next


NEW YORK - Four weeks from Tuesday, Massachusetts voters will consider a ballot initiative, known as Question 3, that would ban a form of parimutuel racing in the Bay State. If you think it's safe to exhale because it's "only" greyhound racing that would become illegal on Jan. 1, 2009, think again.

A similar referendum to shut down the Raynham-Taunton and Wonderland tracks was on the ballot in 2000, and was only narrowly defeated, 51 to 49 percent. Another close vote is expected this year, even though its supporters' arguments are even more hollow than they were eight years ago. That the measure is even on the ballot is a testament to the ferocity and funding power of so-called animal rights groups and the power of the misinformation they often spread - about horse racing as well as dog racing.

As of mid-September, according to the Boston weekly newspaper The Dig, a self-styled "Committee to Protect Dogs" had raised over $250,000 to support the ban, including support from the Humane Society of the United States and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The owners of Raynham-Taunton say they will fight the measure in the coming weeks, while Suffolk Downs, which recently purchased Wonderland, has yet to take a public position.

The CPD's case, which it has been making for nearly a decade, is based on increasingly outmoded and inaccurate descriptions of the struggling Sport of Queens: that the greyhounds are confined in tiny cages most of the day and that racing them causes them to suffer frequent fatal injuries.

In fact, this is largely nonsense. The crates in which the dogs live during their racing careers are built to specifications recommended by the Massachusetts SPCA. The state has been requiring injury reports since 2002, and in 6 1/2 years there have been only 48 fatal injuries - just under eight per year.

Moreover, greyhound adoption has been a ringing national success - I've got two rascals who used to race in Connecticut myself - and the Massachusetts tracks claim an adoption rate of over 95 percent for injured and retired racers that is growing every year. The industry was initially wary of adoption groups, which called themselves "rescue" operations and considered themselves a sort of underground railroad for greyhounds in their early days, but over the last eight years it has embraced the movement and made it a model for placing racing animals that Thoroughbred racing should emulate.

Yet the CPD and its supporters simply ignore these facts and continue on with a self-righteous crusade that could well shutter two historic tracks and put hundreds of employees out of work.

This strategy of repeating lies and ignoring progress is reminiscent of the furor surrounding the freak accident suffered by Eight Belles after the Kentucky Derby, which has died down but will come back stronger than ever the next time a high-profile horse breaks down in a nationally televised race. And despite all the whip and toe-grab and steroid rules under the sun, there's going to be a next time. When it happens, some self-appointed Committee to Protect Horses is going to seek the abolition of horse racing, a position already supported by the Humane Society.

It's a position that borders on madness. Things could always be better, but in general racing animals are among the most well-cared-for creatures on the planet. The money spent on the Massachusetts ballot initiative to "save" eight racing dogs a year could have saved tens of thousands of companion animals from being killed in shelters every year.

The scary part is that if Thoroughbred racing found itself in a similar position, we wouldn't even have as good an argument to oppose it as the greyhound industry does. While a few angelic organizations have done great isolated work on behalf of retired and needy horses, we have no comprehensive national adoption program, no requirement that owners place or care for their horses when they're done racing, or even a handle on how many horses are being abandoned or slaughtered every year.

The racing industry has done some good things in the wake of the Eight Belles incident, but needs to spend a lot more time and effort on what happens to horses after their racing careers, not just during them. Otherwise, when next time comes, it could be an even longer price to survive than a Massachusetts greyhound-racing industry that the voters are even-money to put out of business.