From May to June, the horse racing industry is in its glory. Last week at this time, the nation was buzzing about the Preakness, hoping this would be the year for a Triple Crown winner.
But in the wake of the terrible injury to Barbaro, the spirited Kentucky Derby winner, questions have begun to percolate about a bizarre thoroughbred industry, from its training methods to the medication to the routine treatment of horses who aren't superstars. With the Triple Crown now failing to divert attention, horse racing has the rare opportunity to look itself in the mirror.
One of the darker issues to surface is the remnant of a foreign-owned but domestically based slaughter industry in the United States: three slaughterhouses that kill between 70,000 to 100,000 horses every year, according to estimates by John Hettinger, a longtime opponent of the slaughterhouses, that most experts agree with. The slaughterhouses are in Kaufman, Texas; Fort Worth, Texas; and Dekalb, Ill. The carcasses are sent to France, Belgium and Germany for human consumption.
Hettinger, Arthur Hancock and Rep. Edward Whitfield, R-Ky., have led a long, arduous fight to eliminate the slaughterhouses in the United States. The legislation has been doggedly andsuccessfully fought by cattle associations and veterinarian groups.
On Thursday, Hettinger, who maintains stables in upstate New York and South Florida, faxed me nearly 40 pages of letters, documents, petitions and other correspondence he has accumulated over the past six years. Hettinger is the passionate force behind this fight.
"Some people like horses, but they love racing," he said. "I'm not like that. I like racing, but I love horses. This issue isn't going away. I'm in my early 70s, and I'm going to see this out to the end.
"I'm a bird hunter and an angler, so the animal-rights people probably wouldn't draft me," he added. "But this is an obscenity."
Whitfield has introduced a bill that would prohibit the commercial slaughter of horses in the United States.
Arthur Hancock, 63, the owner of Stone Farms in Paris, Ky., said:
"The slaughterhouse is a brutal practice. Horses are not part of the food chain. They're not like pigs and cattle, chickens and sheep. Horses are beautiful, sensitive, spiritual animals. We don't need to do this. We can take care of our own horses. We can find homes."
This strikes at the complexity of the issue. Can owners take care of their horses? Certainly the wealthy owners have the means, and compassionate owners like Hettinger, who routinely adopts horses that have been abandoned, have the sensibilities. But what about the reckless owners, or the small-time owners? Last week in Baltimore, Dr. Larry Bramlage was the face of Barbaro's life-saving medical team. What I found surprising was that Bramlage and his association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, oppose Whitfield's legislation on the grounds that slaughterhouses provide an option.
"We have to face the fact that there are unwanted horses, uncared-for horses and neglected horses," Bramlage said Friday from Kentucky.
"It's a better scenario for the quality of the horse's life to assure that they'll be taken care of and assured that somebody takes the responsibility not to let them suffer. We don't promote the fact that people have to send their horses to slaughter. If there's any other option, we'd prefer they do that."