Holding signs and passing out fliers, dozens of protesters gathered outside Saratoga Race Course Sunday.
Members of the group Horseracing Wrongs say they are calling attention to what they call the “cruelty and death” of horse racing.
“This is a cruel industry. These horses are being exploited,” said Battuello, the group’s founder.
“These are our children. These are our pets,” said longtime trainer Gary Contessa.
They have dramatically different views on a sport that draws thousands to Saratoga.
The protest comes after two horses died during the opening week at the track. Last year, at least 17 horses died during the meet.
“Believe me, when there is a catastrophic injury, the whole barn is crying,” Contessa said.
Contessa says efforts to ensure the health of horses have evolved significantly during his 43-year career.
“We do MRIs now, just like in human medicine. We do ultrasounds. We have so many things in place, preventative things in place that can diagnose horses long before they’re faced with a catastrophic injury,” said Contessa.
The handful of breakdowns in Contessa’s career, he’ll never forget.
“I can remember the name of the horse. I can remember when it happened and it was devastating,” said Contessa.
NYRA says they’ve taken numerous steps to improve racing safety. They created a committee of the board of directors to address issues of equine safety. They have also added the position of “Safety Steward” to ensure quality and consistency on all NYRA tracks.
“Our message is to end this. We are not interested in reform or compromise,” said Battuello.
Eliminating all catastrophic injuries may be impossible, but Contessa believes the sport does more good than harm.
“But it is an industry, it is a sport, and for the most part it is a beautiful sport,” said Contessa.
In response to Sunday’s protest, NYRA issued the following statement:
"There is no issue more important to NYRA than the safety of our equine and human athletes. That is why NYRA has implemented extensive reforms and made significant investments since 2013 to improve track surface conditions, upgrade equipment, provide vets with more authority to monitor thoroughbred health, establish committees to oversee safety measures, and actively seek out advice and guidance from independent experts and scientists. We remain steadfast in seeking to continuously improve the safety of our racing operations and will never waver from this commitment.”
NYRA says they also have given veterinarians on-site the authority to scratch a horse at any time for any reason.