05/17/2008 12:00AM

PETA rally calls for reforms

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BALTIMORE - Approximately two dozen members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demonstrated peacefully outside the gates of Pimlico on Saturday, calling for reforms in the horse racing industry in the wake of the death of Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby.

The protest, held outside the media parking lot and directly across the street from the stakes barn where horses that were to run in Saturday's Preakness were stabled, went from noon to 2 p.m. Another demonstration was to be held later in the day in another location. The group did not plan to do anything inside Pimlico, a spokesperson said.

Most of the PETA members wore black T-shirts and black pants, and some held large signs of Eight Belles fallen on the Churchill Downs track just moments before she was euthanized. Eight Belles suffered fractures of both front ankles while galloping out following her second-place finish in the Derby.

Eight members of the group rang bells in honor of the filly. One sign read "Eight bells to Sound for Eight Belles". Other banners read "Horse Racing is Animal Abuse," "End Cruel Horse Racing," and "Vets and Trainers Dope Horses."

"We want people to know that people who love animals do not whip, drug, and race them to death," said Ashley Byrne, a campaign coordinator for PETA. "Anytime that animals are being exploited for profit, corners are going to be cut and animals are going to suffer as a result."

A steady of stream of racegoers passed by the protest on their way into Pimlico and a few heckled the group.

"I love the circus and I love Michael Vick," yelled one fan, referring to the Atlanta Falcons quarterback who was jailed for his role in a dog-fighting scandal.

Another fan yelled out to the group, "Who are you betting today?"

Byrne, 30, said PETA is seeking a number of reforms for the racing industry. They include no horses racing under the age of 3, a zero tolerance for legal or illegal drugs to be given within one week of when a horse is to race, a switch to only synthetic or turf tracks, no whipping, and a shorter racing season.

Byrne said since Eight Belles's death PETA has been contacted by people within the racing industry seeking similar reforms.

Byrne said PETA will hold a similar demonstration at the Belmont Stakes on June 7.