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Former Jockey On Horse Racing Deaths


The Santa Anita Derby is today - a million-dollar horse race that helps position thoroughbreds for the Kentucky Derby. But much of the attention will be on the health and welfare of those athletes who are horses. Twenty-three horses have died at Santa Anita, one of the country's premiere tracks, in the past three months. The sport itself is under intense scrutiny, with some critics contending if horse racing should even be a sport. Richard Migliore was a jockey for 30 years. He has won the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita and joins us from upstate New York. Mr. Migliore, thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD MIGLIORE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: As you've watched the story of these deaths grow larger, what are some of the thoughts that have run through your mind?

MIGLIORE: Well, just horror like everybody else. You know, I'm a horse lover. I love racing, but I love horses more. And, you know, as the numbers continue to climb, certainly, what is paramount is the equine safety. The horses have to come first.

SIMON: As you've looked at it with your expertise - too much rain, track conditions, medications?

MIGLIORE: Well, I think there are a lot of contributing factors. I think, you know, the inordinate amount of rain they've had in Southern California this winter certainly led to less than pristine racing conditions at times. I think the fact that, if you look a little deeper, Hollywood Park closed a few years back, and the majority of the horses train now at Santa Anita. I think there's a lot more pressure on that racetrack, as they've had more racing days and more horses training over the surface. So you have less time to evaluate a track. Medication is something that I've always felt has been, at times, too liberal in North America. And certainly, with different rules from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, I think there becomes a confusion about what can be used, how much of it can be used. And I don't think Lasix is a huge problem. I think there are other things...

SIMON: Lasix is what? That's one of the drugs that are commonly used on horses. What is that?

MIGLIORE: Well, it's a therapeutic drug for horses that have a bleeding problem, meaning that they'll actually hemorrhage in their lungs. It'll come out their nose from the stress of racing. Probably 10 percent of horses actually have that issue and probably need Lasix, but about 90 to 95 percent of horses race on it. I think where we run into a problem is that because somebody may feel someone else is getting an advantage, everybody follows suit. And I think it puts pressure on trainers to do things that maybe they don't believe is 100 percent something they need to do.

SIMON: I have to ask, you were known for using the whip. There are new rules now limiting how a whip can be used. How do you feel about that?

MIGLIORE: You know, the new regulations in California basically prohibit a rider to use a whip on a horse unless it's for a safety reason but not as an encouragement to make them run faster. I looked back at my career. It was a different era where a rider actually was revered for his ability to use the whip and get the most out of a horse. There are points in my career I don't look back on with pride, even though I was successful. I think the response, though, about these whip rules are just a knee-jerk reaction and a poor response or an ill-advised response. You have the same whip rules that we've always had in place in other jurisdictions, and you haven't had the spate of catastrophic injuries. So if you use it in the proper way, it will be more of an aid. If a horse is giving you his best response and you continue to hit him, that's when it goes from an aid to a punishment. And I'd like to see that eliminated.

SIMON: Yeah. Forgive me for not knowing, but I'm going to venture the guess that, over 30 years in the saddle, you've sometimes been aboard horses that had to be put down after a race.


SIMON: What's that like?

MIGLIORE: No, it's horrific. You know, that's your dance partner. That's - the horse elevates you, and you try your best to become a partnership. And when your partner goes down in a race like that, it's violent. It's tragic. It's heartbreaking. It's something that I was never able to shake. It's a dangerous sport. We have to acknowledge that. But it's absolutely everybody's responsibility within the industry to make it as safe as possible. And I think looking at things like track surfaces, looking at things like how much horses run, the fact that horses don't get a lot of time off anymore - horses seem to run less, but they never get true breaks to be out in the field and let Mother Nature heal things as opposed to constantly kind of pressing and trying to get through problems.

SIMON: Richard Migliore is a former jockey. Thank you so much for being with us.

MIGLIORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.