hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues August 2021


For the love of horses

Animal rights activists target Saratoga’s crown jewel



The thoroughbreds run at Saratoga Race Course in a scene from 2013. Photo by Joan K. Lentini


Contributing writer


The first race was an hour away as fans poured through the turnstiles at Saratoga Race Course on the first Sunday of this summer’s thoroughbred meet, but already there was a commotion outside the wrought-iron gates on Union Avenue.

“Gambling is no excuse for this,” Nicole Arciello shouted through a bullhorn, her voice echoing across the grassy parking areas half a block away on East Avenue. “Saratoga has blood on its hands!”

Flanking her, a group of about 30 protesters responded in unison. Across the street, others stood silently with posters showing equine mortality statistics and color photos of slaughterhouse carnage.



Protesters gather near the entrance to the Saratoga Race Course on July 18, the first Sunday of this year’s thoroughbred meet. Joan K. Lentini photo

One woman wore a placard around her neck that read, “3 dead so far,” referring to the number of horses euthanized at the Saratoga track this year, including two that died in May and June, weeks before the first race of the season. By the end of this day’s races, one more fatality would be added to the tally kept by Horseracing Wrongs, the group that organized the protest.
Patrick Battuello, the group’s founder, stood in front of the track’s welcome sign holding a photo of a partially dismembered horse on a slaughterhouse assembly line.

“Fans assume racehorses retire to green pastures, but this is where most of them end up,” he said.

Most fans appeared to ignore the protesters and signs, however, as they made their way through the gates they had been barred from entering last year because of Covid restrictions. A few greeted the group with hostility.

“Get a f---in’ life,” one man growled as he passed among the bobbing posters, clutching a pair of binoculars and a cooler.

The protesters say they’d like to see the horseracing industry shut down for good. But that goal seems almost unimaginable in Saratoga, where paid attendance topped 1 million people in each of the five years before the pandemic.

Horses have been racing at Saratoga since 1863, and for decades it’s been considered one of the crown jewels of thoroughbred racing. In 2019, the last season before the pandemic, the all-sources betting handle for the 40-day meet reached a record of more than $705 million.
But elsewhere across the nation, horseracing is in decline. Public perceptions of the industry are changing, in large part because of the concerns raised by activists like Battuello. The frequent deaths of horses while racing and training have made headlines in states like California, and more efforts are under way to halt the slaughter of horses that are no longer able to race. Some also are questioning the public subsidies that often help to keep racing alive.


An economic pillar
The New York Racing Association, which has run the state-owned Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct tracks under a series of long-term contracts since the 1950s, says it already is working to improve safety and reduce the number of deaths and injuries to horses at its facilities.
Patrick McKenna, NYRA’s senior communications director, responded to the concerns raised at last month’s protest with an e-mailed statement.

“NYRA is committed to implementing science-driven best practices to establish and maintain safe racing surfaces and facilities for the equine and human athletes who race and train at Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct,” McKenna wrote. “To meet this goal, NYRA has made significant capital investments in recent years to upgrade and modernize the facilities where we operate.”

McKenna said NYRA’s commitment to safety improvements has yielded results.
“In 2020, for example, nearly 99.9 percent of the 1,507 races and 43,627 high-speed workouts were completed safely and without incident,” he said.

Around Saratoga Springs and the surrounding region, the thoroughbred track helps to sustain an “equine industry” of horse shows, auctions, farms and support services that local economic development officials say accounts for several hundred million dollars annually in economic activity.

And there are many people in the region who view the position taken by Horseracing Wrongs as extreme.

Diana Pikulski, a former executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, said she has seen overall improvements in the industry’s care of its horses in recent years. The foundation, a national organization headquartered in Saratoga Springs, now has 15 sanctuary farms for retired thoroughbreds.

“I think the industry is responding in many ways to the welfare of the horses,” Pikulski said. “They may not be doing it as quickly as everyone would like, but the balance will come out in favor of the horses as long as it continues.”

Pikulski, now a partner in the public affairs and marketing firm Yepsen & Pikulski, said horsemen, trainers and NYRA all supported legislation that passed the state Senate and Assembly in June to prohibit the sale or transfer of racehorses for slaughter. The bill, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo was expected to sign, would make such transfers a misdemeanor punishable by fines of $1,000 per horse or $2,500 per business entity.

Pikulski said her firm also is pushing for federal legislation that she hopes could halt the flow of former racehorses across the nation to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. (Her firm’s other name partner, Joanne Yepsen, is a former Saratoga Springs mayor.) She said the effort the effort at federal anti-slaughter legislation is being led by Reps. Troy Carter, D-La., Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and John Katko, a Syracuse-area Republican.

“We don’t have a federal law, and that’s why horses are being transported over borders,” Pikulski said.

Pikulski, who has seven retired racehorses at her Washington County farm, said she also believes the stereotype of the money-hungry horse-owner is overblown.

“I get calls all the time from owners who tell me they want to retire their horse because it’s time and they don’t want anything bad happening to their horse,” she said.

But Battuello argues these well-intentioned efforts would quickly become cost-prohibitive if the slaughter of horses could actually be halted.

“An average 25-year lifespan, and an average $5,000 annual cost-of-care means that in order to guarantee a lifetime safe-landing for every member of this year’s ‘foal crop,’ the racing industry would have to come up with some $2 billion,” Battuello said. “And that’s just for this year’s group. The same would be needed next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. The horseracing industry is deliberately creating thousands of horses every year for which it has neither the desire or the ability to care for, post-exploitation.”

Battuello cited a 2019 USA Today article in which Alex Waldrop of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association was quoted as estimating 7,500 thoroughbreds a year are slaughtered.
“An industry-affiliated veterinarian puts it at 10,000 to 12,000,” he said. “That alone should have people questioning their support of the industry.”


Building a case
Battuello started Horseracing Wrongs in 2013 when, through research for his animal rights blog for the Albany Times Union, he came to the realization there was no national organization advocating on behalf of racehorses.

“There were groups for circus animals and lab-testing of animals, but not one that took on the horseracing industry full-bore,” Battuello said.

Arciello, his partner, led the effort to make Horseracing Wrongs a tax-exempt charitable organization under the federal tax code in 2017. Their focus is curtailing an industry they believe to be inherently cruel, and they try to raise awareness through their website and by interacting with racing fans at protests.

“The reason we protest is to educate,” Battuello said. “The intent isn’t to shame them, but make them uncomfortable with their decision to support racing.”

The group’s most powerful public relations weapon is the mortality statistics it compiles with the help of freedom of information laws.

“We’ve done something truly unprecedented,” Battuello said. “Before we came along, no one knew how many horses were dying on American tracks. The ‘killed’ lists are what jump out at people – we’ve documented more than 7,000 deaths at U.S. tracks since 2014.”

That doesn’t include mortality statistics from private training facilities that aren’t covered by freedom of information laws. With those added in, Battuello’s group says it’s likely more than 2,000 thoroughbreds die each year while racing and training. And the industry, he notes, hasn’t contradicted that estimate.

“We’ve never had any pushback from the industry over it, and [the sports website] Deadspin did an investigative piece on it and confirmed the number,” Battuello said. “It’s almost six horses a day.”

Horseracing Wrongs now has a presence in 20 states and at 25 racetracks where its protests have become regular events. The group ships literature, posters and other materials used in demonstrations free to organizers.

Battuello said shedding light on practices that were previously unknown to the public spurs both donations and grassroots support.


Taking to the streets
Sunny Pandalfelli lives in the Bronx but regularly makes the trip upstate to take part in protests at Saratoga. She works in equine therapy and says racehorses are bred for speed rather than strength, resulting in life-ending injuries.

“Many of them also have heart failure at 2 or 3 years old. It’s not normal, and it’s not isolated,” she said as the bugle played “Call to the Post” from the winner’s circle.

“I’m not a tree-hugger, but as a society, we should be over this,” she said. “It’s antiquated.”
A racing fan on his way in doubled back to where Pandalfelli stood with her “Raced to Death” placard.

“Who do you like in the first race?” he inquired.
“You know what I’d like, sir? For all the horses in there to be free,” she said.
“Sometimes they try to rattle you,” Pandalfelli explained as the man walked away. “But most people just pass by with no eye contact.”

Arciello said it’s children who most often stop and absorb the message.
“They’re more open-minded,” she said, though she’s seen some adults affected by the protests.
“Couples will walk in, and we’ll get a silent thumbs-up from the women,” Arciello said. “We had season ticket holders tell us they don’t want to go back to the track.”


Insider turned critic
Jo Anne Normile, a former racehorse owner who has been active in Horseracing Wrongs for the past several years, hails from Michigan. She left horseracing in 1996 after her thoroughbred, Reel Surprise, whom she nicknamed Baby, was euthanized after a catastrophic injury in a race at the Detroit Race Course. She came to believe that the sport amounts to exploitation of the horses.

“There’s a tremendous amount of financial pressure for a horse owner,” Normile explained. “The horse must produce in order for them to get out from under the upkeep bills that pile up from training costs to veterinary expenses.”

Because of the cost an owner would incur to wait until a horse reaches full-growth maturity of six years, she said, the horses often begin racing as young as 18 months.

“Young horses who aren’t ready to trail ride down the street are out there at top speed, lungs bursting with someone whipping them,” she said. “When a horse is exhausted is when they’re whipped the most. That’s the money.”

Normile, who served on both horsemen and breeders boards in the mid-1990s, had petitioned the Detroit Race Course to make improvements to its track.

“It was in terrible shape,” she recalled. “They did nothing in spite of three horses going down opening weekend of that year.”

After the death of Reel Surprise, Normile removed her other thoroughbred from the property. She took the Detroit Race Course in court in a case that forced a $500,000 repair project at the track. The racecourse shut down for good the next year.

Normile founded the horse-rescue nonprofit Canter USA in 1997 and published “Saving Baby,” an industry tell-all, in 2013. She now is an advisory board member of Horseracing Wrongs and has protested in past years at the Travers Stakes, the biggest race of the Saratoga meet.


Seeing life after racing
JoAnne Pepper, who owned a horse that ran 13 races at Saratoga Race Course, said her experience with racing has been different.

“After-care of thoroughbreds has become much more common,” Pepper said. “It’s not rare at all to have them end their careers at retirement farms.”

Pepper runs the Friends of Cabin Creek retirement farm in Greenfield. She retired her own horse there after it sustained an ankle injury, but she said she still believes thoroughbreds enjoy the racing life.

“Many owners decide to stop racing their horse after an injury, and they go on to second careers: as a show horse, pasture horse, or as companions,” she said.

The racing industry also is working to address the financial costs of caring for thoroughbreds after their racing careers end, she added.

“There’s an After-Care Day at the track this season, and the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance is a big fund-raising machine that donates to farms,” Pepper said. “There will always be bad apples, and it’s a big industry. But Horseracing Wrongs doesn’t look at how hard others are working to make things better.”

Battuello, though, said he thinks the industry’s involvement in funding horse retirement farms may help to buy the silence of potential critics.

“If you’re connected to horseracing in any way and under the umbrella of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, in order to get accreditation, there’s a firm rule you can’t speak ill of horseracing,” he said. “Very few rescue groups are willing to speak out because they’re either affiliated or get donations from the TAA.”

A spokesperson for Take the Lead, a horse retirement placement program created by the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Battuello also contends chronic isolation in stalls is an unnatural state for horses, which he says are social pack animals by nature, but Pepper disagrees with that view.

“They are in their stalls more than is natural, but racehorses work hard and need downtime,” she said. “And they can see the other horses around them. Plus there are always people nearby, so I don’t think that’s the case.”


Reform or die?
Saratoga Springs native Cheryl Chew owns a corner lot on East Avenue where she sells parking spaces at a prime location. She’s passionate about the tradition of horseracing but believes reforms are in order.

“I would like to see more accountability and compassion on the part of the owners and trainers,” Chew said. “Every one of them should be on board to retire these beautiful animals to a farm. Just because they stop earning does not mean the horses’ lives have less value.”

But the activists in Horseracing Wrongs see the business of horseracing as irredeemable.
Although reformers within the industry often focus on curbing the use of painkillers and other drugs such as Lasix, Battuello contends those drugs aren’t the main reason so many horses are dying at racetracks. A bigger problem, he contends, is over-breeding for speed. The result is big torsos, spindly legs and fragile ankles.

In addition to broken legs, Battuello said, many horses also are euthanized for injuries such as cardiovascular collapse, pulmonary hemorrhage, blunt-force head trauma, and broken necks. He believes what the thoroughbreds endure on a daily basis is worse than the injuries.

“Horses are designed to flee from prey for short sprints,” he said. “The noise of the crowd, metal mouth bits which cause pain, blinders to reduce their field of vision, plus having a human on top of them with a whip – imagine how terrifying this is for a horse.”

Battuello, who in 2019 testified before two state Senate committees about the treatment of racehorses, says he would like to see thoroughbred tracks go the way of greyhound racing. Twenty years ago, there were still about 50 greyhound tracks operating around the country, but by next year only two will be left. After years of activism, the public came to see dog racing as cruel, and 41 states essentially outlawed it.

A similar though less dramatic trend is under way for horseracing tracks. Nearly 40 thoroughbred tracks have closed since 2000, and attendance at many of the remaining ones is in decline as bettors spend their gambling dollars instead at newly legalized casinos.

Those trends are alarming to some in the racing industry, but they’re encouraging to activist like Battuello, Arciello and Normile.

“Let the industry die,” Normile said. “The big fancy hats, the celebrities, … it’s all veneer. And I was one of those people who threw Kentucky Derby parties. Those horses aren’t having any fun; they’re dying for $2 bets.”

Various activists have been urging state legislators to swear off the use of public funds to support horseracing. Although NYRA has reported operating at a profit in some recent years, it has benefitted from a series of state bailouts over the past two decades.

Battuello says he’d like to see mixed-use redevelopment of racetrack properties – as has happened at former tracks in Massachusetts and California.

“That means new jobs, new businesses, and new tax revenues,” Battuello said.
But Pikulski countered that she doesn’t see the racing industry’s demise as a realistic outcome for animal rights activism. Instead, she sees the industry making changes to ensure its longevity through increased concern for thoroughbred welfare, increased diversity and more modernized methods of gambling.

“Everyone I know in the industry cares about horses and goes out of their way to avoid situations that will be detrimental to their horses, usually at their expense,” Pikulski said.

She said there is growing awareness within the industry about changing attitudes toward animal welfare. She pointed to the New Jersey Racing Commission’s decision this year to prohibit the use of whips unless jockeys are in danger.

“People are getting it,” Pikulski said. “You don’t need whips for horseracing, and no one wants to watch horses getting hit.”


Opposing ‘human supremacy’
Among animal rights activists, though, there are more fundamental concerns about the use of animals for commercial human entertainment.

Bonnie Hoag, director of the Dionondehowa Wildlife Sanctuary and School, nearly an hour east of Saratoga Springs in Shushan, said horseracing is just one of the many examples of what she calls “the presumption of human supremacy.” Others include lab testing on animals, factory farming, zoos and habitat destruction.

“Would we do these things if we didn’t think we were privileged to do so?” she asked.
Hoag added that when animal rights activists are disparaged as fringe elements of society, it only shows how deeply rooted the presumption of human supremacy is.

Joe Kern of Queensbury, one of the regular protesters in Saratoga, also sees the issue of horseracing’s future in a larger context.

“It’s not just about the horses,” Kern said. “Any abuse of a sentient being, whether it’s a cow, pig, or horse, that can be rationalized leads to the rationalization of human violence. … It’s all connected. We’re not going to have a peaceful planet unless we have reverence for all life forms.”