By Nicole Rivard

When I first read that War Emblem had passed away at age 21 in March of 2020 at Old Friends, a thoroughbred retirement home in Kentucky, my first reaction was one of relief that the racehorse I was enamored with and cheered on as he tried to capture the elusive Triple Crown in 2002 didn’t end up in the slaughter pipeline.

I remember the silence that fell over a record crowd of 103,222 spectators at Belmont Racetrack in New York when an ignored longshot named Sarava won the race and crushed everyone’s dreams of seeing history being made. There hadn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Secretariat in 1973.

War Emblem finished eighth after stumbling out of the starting gate. As a horse lover, I remember trying to get as close to him as possible in the paddock area before the race. People were pushing against each other to get a glimpse of his glistening dark coat and white star beneath his forelock. I felt like I was in the presence of Michael Jordan, Serena Williams or Peyton Manning.

Of course, now I’m ashamed to admit what a naïve view of horse racing I had; I thought it showcased the beauty and athleticism of horses and that these elite athletes live charmed lives, even after I witnessed a horse collapse the first time I ever went to Belmont. Track workers rushed to put up a big screen. I’m not sure if he or she was hauled off to be euthanized or died right there on the track.

I was in complete denial.

But the truth is, those screens cannot hide the dark side of horse racing. I stopped attending races and supporting such a cruel exploitive industry shortly after joining Friends of Animals in 2013. Not only did I become aware of the rampant drug use to enhance a horse’s peak performance, I also had the opportunity to interview Jo-Anne Normile, author of Saving Baby: How One Woman’s Love for a Racehorse Led to Her Redemption, and founder of two horse rescue organizations. No one knows the horrors of the racing industry better than Normile.

With a racetrack just a few miles from her home and being an avid follower of the Kentucky Derby and fan of Secretariat, Normile chose to breed two horses for racing.  She left racing in disgust after tragedy struck her horse Baby and founded the first CANTER program in 1997. At the time it was the only rescue in the country that intercepted horses directly from their stalls at the track so they did not go to the onsite kill buyers. During Normile’s tenure with CANTER, the group was taking in more than 100 horses a year from just one racetrack. 

Normile co-authored a study in 2012 that demonstrated that an amount equal to 70 percent of Thoroughbred foals on average died at slaughter from 2004 through 2010.

“People cannot demand change until they KNOW what needs to change. Horse slaughter is an economic necessity to the racing industry,” Normile told me. “Each stall at the track needs a horse capable of filling a race because they all make their living off these horses’ backs and broken legs through the bets placed on them. The more horses that race, the more money wagered and the more they all make. The injured and slow horses must be removed quickly and efficiently.

“To my knowledge, this $40-billion-dollar gambling industry has never lobbied to promote passage of any legislation that would ban the transport of America’s horses for slaughter for human consumption. They would not even lobby or promote passage of legislation to close horse slaughter plants when they still operated within the United States.”

While horses are no longer being slaughtered for human consumption in the United States (Bravo Packing is a slaughter plant that supplies cattle and horse meat, bones and hides to zoos), racehorses, like America’s wild horses, are always facing the threat of slaughter as long it continues to be legal to transport horses across our borders to Canada and Mexico or to any other country for the purpose of consumption.

However, New York has given racehorses a reprieve. In December, Governor Kathy Hochul signed a bill prohibiting the sale of any horse “known” to be a racehorse or racehorse breeding stock for the purposes of slaughter, which the bill defines as the “intentional killing” of a horse “for human or animal consumption.”

Until public backlash puts the final nail in the coffin of the racing industry nationwide, this law is a step in the right direction. Susan Wagner, president of NY-based Equine Advocates, a sanctuary for horses, including former racehorses, agrees.

“While I wish the New York State horse slaughter ban protected all equines in the state from slaughter and not just Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, it is still a major accomplishment as it will add to the number of states to pass anti-horse slaughter legislation, including California, Texas and Illinois,” Wagner said. “This is important as we continue to push for an effective federal ban.”

The federal Save America’s Forgotten Equines was reintroduced in May 2021. It would permanently ban horse slaughter in the U.S. and end the exports of horses for slaughter. Friends of Animals supports it with amended language that would define slaughter as the intentional killing of a horse for human and animal consumption as NY’s law does.

Legislative efforts can move along at a snail’s pace, so it’s important to keep bringing the atrocities in horseracing to light just as it’s been done for circus animals and marine life imprisoned at places like SeaWorld.

Speaking in the NY Senate in 2019, equine veterinarian Dr. Kraig Kulikowski said, “The racetrack healthcare environment is one of lawlessness on multiple levels…the question is never ‘What is the right thing to do?’ but ‘What can we get away with?’”

I can’t unread what I read in Normile’s book, I can’t unsee a horse breaking down during a race, so I talk to my friends about how the few races they might see on TV with fancy hats and celebrities are far from the reality of the thousands of races they never see at lesser-known racetracks throughout the country.

From 2018-19 there were more than three dozen on-track horse deaths at Santa Anita Park in California alone—the constant grinding on immature bodies taking its toll.

In 2020, 29 trainers, veterinarians and pharmacists were indicted on federal charges in a horse doping ring.

It is not a sport—it’s a gambling enterprise—and if people stop betting, the industry will die instead of its horses that are forced to participate.

Unfortunately it’s too late for Medina Spirit, the 2021 Kentucky winner disgraced for failing a post-race drug test. The lightning-fast colt collapsed during the final stretch of a workout at Santa Anita on Dec. 6. He was just three years old, equivalent to age nine in humans. Domestic horses have an average life expectancy of 25-30 years.

I’m lucky that I get to provide care for former racehorses, who, from time to time, live in the stable where I work on Sundays.

I always feel a special connection to them—especially this one grey named Shadow. Perhaps I’m looking for my own redemption.

Sometimes I find myself wondering what they’ve been through. But mostly I just like to be present in the moment with them, grateful they survived an industry that many other horses don’t.

Nicole Rivard is editor of Action Line. She brings 26 years of journalism experience to the frontlines, protesting and documenting atrocities against animals.