A Ballot Initiative to Clean Up Horse Racing?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Could a ballot initiative end horse racing in California?

There is no such initiative anywhere near the ballot, but the horse racing business and its fans are worried. A wave of horse deaths at Santa Anita have raised questions about racing’s safety, and related issues of drugs and usage. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has called for a halt to racing there.

But is that enough to win a ban?

Quite possibly, yes.

No cause has been more successful in American democracy than the cause of animal protection. Most initiatives lose, but most animal protection initiatives have won—thanks to the cause and the clever organizing of the Humane Society and other groups. We’ve seen protection of farm animals, limits on hunting and fishing, and other measures pass.

Horse racing would be a more difficult campaign. Horses like to run, and the sport is one of the oldest in North America. Santa Anita and Del Mar are beloved and signature California places. Also, horse racing supporters would likely argue that their race tracks would be replaced by new development and housing, and Californians hate new development and housing.

But horse racing has lost popularity, and fans, meaning there is a smaller base of supporters. The failure of the industry to get a handle on deaths also helps make the case.

And even if a ballot initiative doesn’t materialize, or materializes but doesn’t win, the debate itself puts pressure on the racing game. The sport of kings may not be long for California.

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