03/27/2014 1:34PM

Jay Hovdey: Racing can disarm attackers with action


It takes a few days to digest bad news. But the sour stomach persists, courtesy of the putrid video meal served up by assistant trainer Scott Blasi and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, along with their enablers, Steve Asmussen and the New York Times.

The first and only honest reaction to the PETA undercover video revealing unvarnished moments behind the scenes of a high-profile Thoroughbred operation should range from disgust to extreme disgust. How dare they – and pick your “they” – rain down such shameful intimations upon a business populated by so many hard-working, honorable people with abiding concern for both the integrity of the sport and the welfare of its animal athletes?

But then, once the dust of indignation has settled, it becomes clear once again that Thoroughbred racing continues to lay itself wide open to the kind of criticism crudely articulated by the PETA video.

Medications, injections, pharmaceutical supplements – any artificial manipulation of the equine physiology for the purposes of commercial use is going to look terrible when framed by a philosophy that horse racing is an immoral enterprise that should be outlawed, which is PETA’s position. The use of an anonymous, supposedly endangered female undercover source whose face and voice must be altered for her protection lends a theatricality to the video that is undeniably effective.

Blasi adds salt to the mix with rough language that displays both a lack of vocabulary and inspiration from the words of Johnny Carson, who once advised, “Never use a big word when a little filthy one will do.”

But all that is beside the point, and the video, with its tacit validation by the New York Times, is not nearly as important as the reaction to the video from horse racing’s leaders of influence, as well as its headline players. If each and every stable, large and small, turns inward to make certain there is nothing for an undercover operation to uncover, thank you PETA. If the situation accelerates the positive steps made toward regional agreements on medication rules, that will be a good thing. If the reaction to the video stirs racing’s regulators to more rigorous monitoring and surveillance of backstretch activity, bravo.

This reporter also hopes that the PETA video will serve as a cold slap of reality to racing’s leaders who persist in trying to position the game alongside other professional sports with leagues, teams, seasons, and national offices – none of which exist in Thoroughbred racing. Horse racing has never been ready for that kind of prime time, nor for the scrutiny that comes with it. Mega-events like the Kentucky Derby and, to a lesser extent, the Breeders’ Cup only serve to maintain the delusion that Thoroughbred racing has earned a place alongside those sports with similarly spangled championships, rather than accept its rightful identity as a niche endeavor pursued by a passionate core of true believers.

Thoroughbred racing can look around and see plenty of examples of where harsh media exposure of abuses – both real and perceived – can lead. “Blackfish” is a compelling documentary that uses the death of a trainer by one of her orcas at Sea World in San Diego as a backdrop to make a case that these huge, graceful “killer whales” are not by their nature fit to be captive performers, and to continue in the practice amounts to abject cruelty. And yet the whales still perform, at Sea World properties across the land, and business is good.

Then, earlier this month a California state legislator introduced a bill that would prohibit the use of orcas as performers and ban their captive breeding, as well as outlaw the import and export of the whales. I would advise racing’s leaders to pay close attention to the progress of that bill.

In the end, there is always an understandable temptation to attack the messenger, and PETA – with its extreme and provocative tactics – provides a ripe target. Hopefully, the cooler heads among Thoroughbred racing’s advocates will know better than to go down that road.

However, there is an obligation to know the enemy. PETA declared all-out war on horse racing years ago – along with rodeos, circuses, furriers, puppy mills, guide dogs, and the meat, poultry, and egg industries, among others. The core of PETA’s leadership is uncompromising and deeply committed, spearheaded by PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk, a 64-year-old, British-born animal welfare advocate whose last will and testament includes the following requests for the disposal of her remains:

“That the ‘meat’ of my body, or a portion thereof, be used for a human barbecue, to remind the world that the meat of a corpse is all flesh, regardless of whether it comes from a human being or another animal, and that flesh foods are not needed.

“That my skin, or a portion thereof, be removed and made into leather products, such as purses, to remind the world that human skin and the skin of other animals is the same and that neither is ‘fabric’ nor needed …

“That one of my eyes be removed, mounted, and delivered to the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a reminder that PETA will continue to be watching the agency until it stops poisoning and torturing animals in useless and cruel experiments …

“That one of my thumbs be removed, mounted upwards on a plaque, and sent to the person or institution that, in the year of my death or thereabouts, PETA decides has done the most to promote alternatives to the use and abuse of animals in any area of their exploitation.”

You’ll never beat someone willing to be eaten for their cause. Instead, the hard work ahead must focus on reforms that will buffer Thoroughbred racing from being associated with the worst abuses of the animals who give their lives to the business. Most people don’t have a problem with horses being ridden or raced for sport, or even for profit. But whipped, buzzered, drugged, neglected, slaughtered or otherwise treated like disposable commodities – that’s another story.

So thumbs up, Thoroughbred racing. Don’t let PETA get you down. At least the game has something to shoot for.