By: Belinda Stronach
Chairman & President, The Stronach Group
The COVID-19 crisis has presented the United States and the world with an unprecedented challenge, one that requires personal sacrifice, a shift in perspective and has forced us to redefine our sense of community. Individuals, businesses and governments are being called upon to do their part, to stay safe, to protect others and to take care of those around us and that is precisely what the horseracing community is doing right now.
This past Friday, live horseracing was suspended temporarily by order of the Los Angeles County Health Department. The horseracing community understands and will always abide by government orders. But there is much more behind the scenes than most people realize.
At Santa Anita Park, our community alone is made up of an ecosystem that includes over 750 caregivers (professionally known as backstretch employees) who are employed by owners and trainers and who live in the onsite dormitories and dedicate their lives to caring for the horses we all love. For these people, Santa Anita Park is their home and that is where they are safe. On March 12, a full week before any stay-at-home orders were issued, Santa Anita Park voluntarily closed to the public for the protection of those people who call it home. Since then, we have been a self-contained, locked-down community operating under stringent and ever-evolving measures based on the best scientific guidance from health and governmental authorities to maintain social distancing and limit exposure to COVID-19 while continuing to protect the welfare of those connected to it, both human and non-human.
Our community includes over 1,700 racehorses who also call Santa Anita Park home and who require constant supervision and care – from feeding, to exercise and veterinary care – racehorses are living, breathing animals who cannot, and will not, survive without daily human contact and attention. They are not machines that can be mothballed temporarily in a factory. Further, racehorses are conditioned athletes and standing in a stall without daily exercise is detrimental to their health, safety and welfare.
Our community is also made up of the owners and trainers who employ jockeys and backstretch employees and who are responsible for providing the financial resources needed to care for the horses. The majority of the wages paid to those working on the backstretch and the financial resources to care for horses come directly from the earnings that are made when horses race. Those earnings come from the money wagered on live racing and so the cycle goes.
The reality is that live racing, even without customers on track in these times, and the income that comes from wagering is a vital part of the ecosystem and by removing it an instability is created for those in our community who can least afford it.
Simply put, by ceasing live racing operations we are jeopardizing the income stream for backstretch employees and the financial resources required to provide them and the horses they love with the care they both deserve. For our 750 backstretch employees the live racing element of the ecosystem allows Santa Anita Park to provide safe and secure housing, enables the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation to offer critical health care services at the onsite medical clinic and ensures that backstretch employees have access to no-cost critical support services. Without live racing, some may have to make a difficult choice to leave their home at Santa Anita Park, not because they want to, but because they have no other option in order to make a living. A fact that entirely defeats the objective of the stay-at-home orders.
It is through this lens that the interdependent ecosystem that makes up the unique horseracing community, whether or not it is a sport you agree with, must be viewed. Horseracing is a delicate, circular ecosystem and to destroy that now will lead to an unnecessary humanitarian and animal care crisis on top of what we are all already dealing with.
While some industries are able to cease or pause operations completely, this is simply not an option for horseracing. Now, perhaps more than ever in these difficult times, we must be mindful of our responsibility to prioritize the safety and well-being of the horses and those who care for them.