Horse racing hotline hopes to help animal welfare

Thomas A. Barstow, Contributing Writer//April 14, 2022

Horse racing hotline hopes to help animal welfare

Thomas A. Barstow, Contributing Writer//April 14, 2022

A hotline established early in March at Pennsylvania’s six horse racing tracks will monitor reports of suspected illegal or unethical behavior in what is part of an overall initiative to improve operations at the tracks. 


A state spokesperson said she wasn’t sure how many complaints had been received in the initial weeks after the hotline was established but that the effort by the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission has the support from multiple stakeholders.  


“It is a longstanding effort to look at safety and animal welfare,” said Shannon Powers, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. “Nationwide, over the past couple of years, there has been a lot of focus on deaths of horses at racetracks, so the industry in Pennsylvania pulled together a working group of the various parties—the veterinarians, track management, and anyone who could have an impact on animal health and safety at Pennsylvania tracks—based on the roles they played.” 


Notices of the hotline have been posted in public areas at tracks, as well as in barns and other places where only those involved in the industry have access. It also will be published in racing programs, on each racetrack’s website and on the commission’s webpage at agriculture.pa.gov. It will be posted during harness racing events held during county and local fairs, too, according to a report from the Department of Agriculture.  


“Anyone who witnesses suspicious behavior surrounding potential racing violations and the treatment and care of horses can call the number and leave a message detailing the time, date, location, actions witnessed and other relevant information,” the department said in a statement.  

Todd Mostoller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (PA HBPA), said the signs started being posted soon after the state launched the initiative early in March.  


“If somebody sees something that they don’t think is right, they should report it,” Mostoller said, adding that he would expect a lot of anonymous complaints that don’t bear out. “The one problem with it is sorting through people who are just complaining.” 


Because horse racing is a competitive sport, he explained, some people might call the hotline simply because they think their horse should have won. 


“If you don’t win, you don’t get paid, so you can imagine in an environment like that you will get a lot of unwarranted complaints, simply because you are not being successful,” Mostoller said. “But if there are things that someone sees and it is of a serious nature, then the commission has to weed through what is a valid complaint and what is not … and investigate them and make sure that nothing nefarious is going on.” 

Pete Peterson, president of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association, said his organization supports the effort that is part of an overall plan to improve the sport.  


“We have no issues with the hotline,” Peterson said. “If it makes it more accessible to make sure everyone is above board, that is what the vast majority of horsemen want—a level playing field. And if there is any suspected wrongdoing, we want to make sure that people have an avenue to report it.” 


In January, the state adopted an overall plan called the Equine Safety and Welfare Action Plan. It consists of 10 measures, in addition to the hotline, that will be implemented by the industry and racing commission, according to information posted on the Department of Agriculture website. 


  1. Tracks will conduct an independent, third-party analysis of the racetrack twice a year. 
  2. There will be increased oversight of morning workout sessions.  
  3. Track veterinarians must attest that each horse is fit before a race.  
  4. Trainers must submit a pre-entry form to the racing panel for permission to race. The racing panel consists of the race secretary, commission veterinarian, steward and horsemen’s representative. 
  5. After Feb. 28, any horse that finishes more than 12 lengths behind the winner in its last five consecutive starts will be ineligible to start in a race. 
  6. Require the track veterinarian to conduct an examination within 48 hours of a horse being placed on the vet’s list due to lameness. The vet’s list is a list of horses unfit to race. 
  7. More oversight of Intra-articular injections, which are used to help a horse should it become lame. For example, if any injection is a corticosteroid, the horse is placed on the 30-day vet’s list. 
  8. Establish stricter criteria for removal from the vet’s list, using diagnostics, scanning and imaging.  
  9. Establish a pilot program to install either a PET scan or MRI equipment to aid in the detection of bone issues. 
  10. Create a fatality database in Pennsylvania. 

Horse fatalities have been a concern statewide, as well as nationally. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this year that 85 horses died at Pennsylvania’s three thoroughbred tracks in 2021. The newspaper previously had reported that, from 2010 to 2020, more than 1,400 thoroughbreds died in Pennsylvania. 

The issue of horse fatalities will be monitored carefully, Peterson said. Investigators looking into why a horse died on a track will use a number of tools and reports, including autopsies and weather/track conditions.  

The goal is to track the fatalities in detail to determine if there are any patterns. The industry is behind such efforts, which also will examine whether illegal performance-enhancing drugs are being used, he added.  


“Owners and trainers and breeders have a stake in ensuring the health and safety of their horses, which are also a significant investment,” Peterson said. “They develop an emotional attachment to the horses, too, and they don’t want anything to happen to them.” 

A National Issue 

The issue of horse safety has been a national concern, several observers pointed out. Last year, the national COVID relief package signed into law included the federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA).  


“It’s basically looking to create a federal body to look at the integrity of horse racing,” Peterson said. However, the legislation has proved to be controversial and legal challenges have left its future in limbo, he added.  


Much of the disagreement surrounds how the HISA will be funded, Mostoller said. 


“I believe there are some good things in there, but the major flaw is they don’t know how they are going to pay for it,” Mostoller said. “There is no funding mechanism.” 


The House and Senate in Washington, D.C., did not debate the merits of HISA and no one was going to vote against the COVID relief bill, he said.  


“It was dirty politics at its finest,” Mostoller said, saying that the cost in Pennsylvania could be about $15 million. “If you have a good piece of legislation, let’s sit down and talk about it. You don’t bury it in some relief bill that no one is going to vote ‘no’ on. You do that because it has problems.  


“Some good things and some bad things are in it,” he continued, “but the worse thing is they had no funding mechanism in it to pay for it.” 

Tips involving the health and safety of horses at Pennsylvania racetracks can be reported anonymously by leaving a message at (717) 787-1942.


Thomas A. Barstow is a freelance writer and editor based in York