Where Conscience Meets Capital: An Anthropologist Responds to PETA’s “Drugs and Death” Horse Racing Video Exposé
I finally got the nerve to watch the latest PETA undercover investigation video about Thoroughbred racehorse trainer Steven Asmussen’s less-than-humane training practices. PETA has a history of launching anti-Thoroughbred horseracing campaigns in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby, when the world’s eye trains on Churchill Downs in what Hunter S. Thompson described as “the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.”
Whether or not the timing of this video was meant to color people’s perceptions of this “decadent and depraved” cultural phenomenon come the first Saturday in May is not my claim to stake. But I will stake another kind of claim in response to PETA’s video, one based on my own anthropological research on Thoroughbred horse racing, and it comes in the form of two words.
If we focus on only the dark side of Thoroughbred racing (some, like PETA, would say that is all there is) we only see syringes and shockers as the number one “tools of the trade” (PETA video minute, 9:07). I can still hear D. Wayne Lucas, who got his start in Quarter Horse racing (which happens to be a culture I grew up in) talking about how it sounded like “a full-blown orchestra” at the starting gates at Ruidoso in New Mexico, so many trainers and jockeys were using electric shock to jolt their horses out of the starting gates (starting at 7:00). Then to hear Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens joking over dinner and candlelight about how he shocked himself after using one of these devices on a horse (6:47), it could have been read as appropriate karma if it weren’t so utterly disappointing. I promptly “unfollowed” him on Twitter, but not before I saw his page’s feed: silent on his appearance the PETA video.
If there is only a dark side to racing, then we only see serums and powders of questionable legitimacy (like tyroxine and Lasix) shooting into equine veins (3:45) or up their nostrils (1:07). If there is only darkness, we only see what literally emerges from such illegitimate practices: fluid shooting out of horses’ joints to the point of drawing exclamation from veterinarians (1:44), and hooves degraded to “nubs” (2:12) that even super glue cannot fix (2:57). During my anthropological research in the heart of Kentucky’s Thoroughbred country in 2011 – the same year that Nehro, a horse profiled in the PETA video (starting at 2:06), came in second in the Kentucky Derby – I often heard “no hoof, no horse” (a similar refrain can be heard at 2:25 in the PETA video). This ultimately proved true for Nehro, as he succumbed to colic (3:05) in what assistant trainer Scott Blasi (who is not lacking in any choice words throughout the video) called the “most violent fucking death I have ever seen” (3:13).
Given the horse’s struggle with staying afoot, colic (the twisting and blockage of a horse’s intestines) was perhaps a result from his debilitated condition, and most certainly a blessing in disguise: it put him out of his misery. “They should have retired him from racing last year,” one of Nehro’s exercise riders comments on PETA’s hidden camera (3:20). And when he says “they” it is not just Asmussen and his training retinue who is implicated, but owner Ahmed Zayat as well.
Which brings me to the claim I wish to stake here, and in doing so, I wish to shine a light into the dark side of Thoroughbred horseracing of which PETA has made many so thoroughly aware. For others, such as myself, this video is only another reminder of how unfortunate too many horses (and humans [8:02]; also see Dr. Heidi Castenada’s work) are within the vaunted world of Thoroughbred horseracing. As racing elite Bill Casner, co-founder of WinStar Farms and KEEP (Kentucky Equine Education Project), opined in the Thoroughbred Daily News in regards to the PETA video: “Until our value system changes and horses are treated like the living, breathing, majestic animals that they are, we will continue to diminish as an industry until we no longer exist.”
During the year I spent in Kentucky’s Bluegrass, the hub of Thoroughbred breeding and racing for North America, if not the world, I studied an off-shoot culture of Thoroughbred racing: the rescue, retirement, and/or rehabilitation of former racehorses. But instead of finding organizations like PETA who were dead-set against racing and wanted to send it the way of greyhound racing, I found an unexpected, at times productive/at times counterproductive relationship between “rescue” efforts and racing. There wasn’t just a dark side, nor was there just the limelight, but something more complex and less polemical than the battling images PETA and racing proffered.
Some horses I encountered in my study had been pulled directly out of “kill pens” where they were held at auctions in US until their shipment to slaughter plants in either Canada or Mexico (despite efforts to bring the business back into full swing to the US starting in 2011 nothing has been established yet save for the Bravo plant in New Jersey which slaughters horses for zoo meat). Some had been conscientiously retired by their trainers, even before taking a step out of the starting gate in an official race. Some had been passed down the line, from graded stakes races to becoming a so-called “rat” (8:03) in claiming races before they were retired with organizations like the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (which had its own share of controversy during my research stint with them). Some had retired as “warhorses” (horses that earn $500,000 or more in their lifetime), enabled by fans, former owners or breeders who had followed their career not only out of joy for the sport, but also to make sure these horses did not disappear into what anti-horse slaughter activists call “the slaughter pipeline.”
Every horse had a story they carried with them. Some spoke with a paper trail of vet records or bloodlines that could be looked up on Equineline.com; most only had their bodies and behavior to communicate where they had been. And for some, the faint, but still-legible traces of their Jockey Club racing registration tattoo on their upper lip was the only thing that meant the difference between being shipped to slaughter or finding sanctuary and eventual adoption.
Within all these stories, be they discursive, embodied, or both, came one unifying element: these horses were saved for a reason – they were not just “disposable commodities” (3:37). Sometimes the reason was because they stood out as Thoroughbreds in a herd of auction horses predominantly consisting of Quarter Horses and Paint Horses (the two most likely breeds to go to slaughter), and given how romanticized horses of the Thoroughbred persuasion are (just watch the films “Seabiscuit” or “Secretariat” for evidence), their breed identity thus saved them. Other horses stand out because they are still sound, that is, they still “have a hoof” so there is still a horse left to ride. Others are salvageable because of a kind disposition or a look in their eye that says they would be a perfect “kid horse.” And others are deemed worth saving because they gave so much to their human owners that it was the least these Homo sapiens sapiens could do for Equus feras caballus.
In processing my research, I gave a name to all these reasons, and their associated attributes, for why certain horses are saved – and I am not just talking about from slaughter, but from other relationships that draw these horses into abusive or neglected situations with humans. Relationships such as those cultivated at Asmussen’s training stables. What ultimately can save a horse is his or her “redemptive capital” – anything a human reads into a horse that says, “this should not be taken for granted, this should not be depleted” and, most importantly, “this is worth my investment, not just in money, but in humane-ity.”
Perhaps the greatest horror we witness when we watch PETA’s undercover video is not the footage I’ve already mentioned, or the additional footage of a terrible pin-firing job (5:14), the voyeuristic scene where we overhear New York state’s “top horseracing veterinarian” admit that Lasix is a “performance enhancer” (4:59), or the discussion of shock wave therapy that is speculated to be so painful to the horses that Blasi “can’t believe them f—king sons of bitches can take it” (5:36), but the ongoing, systematic disregard and depletion of these horses’ redemptive capital. By disgracing these horses, not only is Thoroughbred racing disgraced, but our human ability – no, responsibility – to be humane is. Redemptive capital is not just about saving the horses or horse racing, it is about redeeming our relationship with horses and the larger-than-human world. And it begins with an investment we cannot measure in cash and profits alone, but where our conscience can finally match our culture’s fixation on capital. And it begins, so to speak, where it is darkest before the dawn.
As historian of science and philosopher of human-animal relations, Donna J. Haraway, advises us: “Species interdependence is the name of the worlding game on earth, and that game must be one of response and respect” (2008:19). Where there was once only decadence and depravity, as Hunter S. Thompson chided us and PETA has now reminded us – is it now possible for some response, respect, and redemption for racing? Perhaps we will see, come the first Saturday in May.
It is the year of the horse, after all.