Doug O’Neill has found tremendous success in the horse racing world.
The famed trainer has won the Kentucky Derby twice and has reportedly won more than $130 million in the sport.
Horse racing as a whole, however, is losing popularity — and fast. The death rate of horses in the sport has seemingly skyrocketed in recent years. Thirty-six have died at the famed Santa Anita race track in Southern California this year alone.
O’Neill is fully aware of the state of the sport, but isn’t willing to let it die out easily.
That’s why on Friday, O’Neill was one of a few dozen people who stood outside of the Santa Anita track with signs in support of horse racing — reminding those who pass by how many would actually be impacted should the sport die out.
“The reality of it is that 77,000 jobs are tied to the sport, just in California,” O’Neill said, via the Louisville Courier Journal. “We all chose to work alongside horses for a living. We have to share that.”
The Santa Anita track — which is currently hosting the Breeders’ Cup — has been at the center of the issue for several years. Twenty-one horses died in less than three months at the track earlier this year, causing organizers to shut it down for weeks before reopening it with stricter rules in place, including banning race day medications. The track even banned a Hall of Fame trainer permanently after his fourth horse died there in a year.
The deaths continued at the track, though at a slower rate. California Gov. Gavin Newsom later signed a law that allows the California Horse Racing Board to immediately suspend horse-racing licenses.
Though the death rate at the track this year is currently lower than that of years past — 44 horses died at Santa Anita last year, and 64 died the year before — the track itself has averaged more than 50 deaths per year over the past decade. Its rate was lower than that of Kentucky’s Churchill Downs, too.
While those inside the sport may be used to the death rate, it’s a rising cause for concern for those on the outside, something that has sparked multiple protests at Santa Anita in recent months.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals vice president Kathy Guillermo, who has led protests due to the deaths, acknowledged the historic improvements made at Santa Anita. Still, she said, it’s not enough.
“We aren’t protesting the track that has instituted the biggest changes to protect horses in racing in the last 20 years,” Guillermo said, via the Courier Journal. “But we want the deaths to get to zero and I don’t think that will happen unless there are serious consequences for what may very well be medication misuse.”
To those on the inside — like Greg Renick, who owns 25 percent of two horses and participated in the protest with O’Neill on Friday — simply shutting the sport down completely isn’t the answer.
“It’s important that horse racing survives as an industry in California,” Renick said, via the Courier Journal. “I think there are people who would like to shut it down. I think it’s important that people enjoy racing — whether they’re fans or owners or people who are employed in the industry — show that we care about racing and horses.”
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