Get ready for the annual horse racing public relations campaign known as the Kentucky Derby. Viewers of the world’s most famous televised race will hear trainers, owners and jockeys proclaim their love for the horses who might bring them a pot of money and a few days in the spotlight.
But in December, PETA revealed that 2006 Kentucky Derby runner Private Vow was slaughtered in 2020 in South Korea for meat for human consumption. Some of his remaining body parts were processed into dog food or oil for cosmetics.
This echoed a scandal that many in horse racing promised would never happen again: the slaughter of 1986 Derby winner Ferdinand in Japan. It’s as true now as it was 35 years ago: Even Kentucky Derby entrants are not spared the fate of the thousands of U.S. horses exported every year to Canada, Mexico and overseas for slaughter. The truth is, horse racing is more “livestock” industry than sport.
Private Vow’s Kentucky Derby trainer, Steve Asmussen, issued no statement of remorse, and as far as we can tell, neither he nor anyone involved in the horse’s life took action to prevent the slaughter of more Thoroughbreds. That was yet another moral and public relations blunder.
Horse racing is scrambling to shore up an eroding fan base that increasingly views the sport, like bullfighting or the Iditarod, as cruel and anachronistic. The industry’s marketing schemes to repair the public’s perception are failing because horse racing doesn’t clean up its most serious messes and prevent suffering. Racing doesn’t just have an image problem — it has a reality problem.
The recent parade of scandalous viral images of a euthanized horse still wearing racing wraps on her legs, lying amid trash in a landfill, and of trainers and jockeys laughing while sitting on dead horses was appalling largely because it exposed a chillingly callous attitude toward the deaths of horses used for racing. It revealed what some insiders truly think of their horses — that they’re disposable — and it is in stark contrast to the disingenuous claims by trainers and owners on national television during every Kentucky Derby broadcast that they love their horses and that the horses are part of their family.
This was also what was most disturbing about PETA’s 2013 undercover investigation into Asmussen’s operation. While industry apologists tried to downplay Asmussen’s top assistant Scott Blasi’s foul language as just dirty words, it was precisely these obscenities that revealed the shocking disregard for horses by so many in racing. When one of his seriously injured horses, Valediction, was purchased after a race by an unsuspecting buyer, Blasi said he was so happy to unload the horse that “[he] could do a f---ing cartwheel.” He called the horse a “rat,” adding that “if they ask you how he is, say he’s my favorite horse.”
Soon afterward, PETA rescued Valediction and retired him to a safe and loving home.
Many horses will cross the finish line at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend. But there will be no winners. Every Thoroughbred is in danger of meeting Private Vow’s fate. Until the racing industry grapples with that and protects the horses it uses, it will continue to decline, and all the disingenuous claims of love can’t save it.
Kathy Guillermo is a senior vice president with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org. ©2021 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.