Mark Berner

Mark Berner first worked with horses on a small farm in upstate New York in 1973, where he mucked stalls and cared for racehorses with infirmities that were turned out there until ready to resume training.

He joined American Teletimer as a clocker in 1976 and operated their electronic timing equipment at many east coast racetracks until 1978, when he was permanently stationed at NYRA's three tracks, Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park & Saratoga Race Course.

Berner did freelance handicapping for the New York Daily News in 1982 & 1983 before joining Newsday in 1984 as a handicapper and later a sports reporter. Berner teamed up with Pricci to win the United Press International's 1985 UPI New York Newspaper Awards for Best Sports Story. In addition, Berner wrote and handicapped for several trade publications including, Daily Racing Form, Sports Eye, Racing Action, The Thoroughbred Times, Horse Player Magazine and New York Sportsnet.

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Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Thoroughbred Deaths and the Enemy Within

By Mark Berner

ELMONT, MAR 5, 2019--A protest scheduled for last weekend at Santa Anita Park, where 20 horses died in racing or training related incidents since its prime meet began DEC 26, was canceled by the organization that urged this call to action--People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, aka PETA.

PETA has “no problem with the racetrack,” said Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President, Investigative, Legal & Corporate Cases Media Office and a 30-year veteran of the organization. “PETA’s problem is with the trainers and medication.”

Of greater significance, those tethered to the sport should know this: “The goal of abolishing racing has been removed from the organization's mission statement and website,” Guillermo indicated.

On Sunday, Santa Anita cancelled Thursday’s racing, five days in advance due to impending stormy weather. Nearly a foot of rain has fallen in SoCal over the past two months. The track plans an 11-race card when it resumes racing Friday.

With PETA watching, The Stronach Group apparently decided to err in favor of caution.

A feared protagonist, it should be noted that PETA did not even have a racing agenda until Eight Belles broke down after finishing second to Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

The organization’s new mission seems to be that horseracing should clean its own house. As Walt Kelly parodied Commodore Perry in Pogo, “We have met the enemy and it is us." Guillermo agrees: “Horseracing is its own worst enemy.”

Santa Anita’s one-mile main track, closed for training two days last week, has been proclaimed “one hundred percent ready,” by Mick Peterson, PhD, a soil and safety expert from the University of Kentucky’s Agricultural Equine Programs. Peterson evaluates soil samples from Santa Anita on a monthly basis.

In addition to soil sampling and a thorough examination of the track’s cushion, pad and base, Peterson employed ground-penetrating radar to ensure uniform consistency throughout the entire racing surface.

Tim Ritvo, TSG Chief Operating Officer, is focused on the issue. “We consider the safety and security of the athletes who race at our facilities, both human and equine, to be our top priority. All industry stakeholders including our company must be held accountable, and we are committed to doing just that.”

Toward that end, track representatives has been meeting with PETA, pledging to take definitive steps including extending the review of medication records to horses in training—and not just before races.

Research sponsored by the California Horse Racing Board shows why horses break down and found that the fault lies with the trainers and veterinarians who drug horses with a cocktail of anti-inflammatories, painkillers, sedatives and more to keep them running when they should be recuperating.

Since this practice masks soreness and injury, these injured horses are the most vulnerable to broken bones. Horses who require medication should not be anywhere near a racetrack.

PETA believes that horseracing has innumerable problems and, at bare minimum, all medications should be banned for at least one week before racing or serious training, effectively preventing lame horses from suffering further harm.

Meetings between PETA and Santa Anita officials are scheduled to continue in the coming days.

Rick Baedeker, Executive Director of the CHRB, told Guillermo--and also confirmed by CHRB Equine Medical Director Rick Arthur to The Jockey Club--that “90 percent of breakdowns occur with horses that have pre-existing conditions.” Drugs mask those conditions even from the expert eyes of pre-race veterinarian examination.

The Jockey Club has an Equine Injury Data Base, skewed because its statistics are based on injuries that resulted in fatalities within 72 hours from the race date. Statistics are for official Thoroughbred races but exclude steeplechase races. Apparently, The Jockey Club believes that not all Thoroughbreds are created equal.

Training injuries at Santa Anita resulting in death this season have not been included, nor have two “non-racing/non-training” mortalities. Consequently, the study does not represent complete, truthful findings, choosing instead to err on the side good public relations.

Statistics from another animal rights group,, on FEB 27 from President Patrick Battuello uncovered the fact 22 racehorses died at Santa Anita at the current meet according to the latest Stewards Minutes: 12 horses died in races, seven on dirt, five on turf, and eight died while dirt training. Two were considered non-racing/non-training events.

A small but boisterous crowd of about a dozen protestors representing, were outside Santa Anita on Sunday, chanting and carrying signs with slogans that derided racing.

Unlike PETA, HorseRacingWrongs mission is to shutter all of horseracing. To that end, Battuello has documented thousands of Thoroughbred horse deaths dating back to 2014.

Conversely, Kathy Guillermo, nee Snow, grew up a horse lover not unlike many Midwestern girls in the 1960s. From Rolla, Missouri, she began to go racing with her uncle at River Downs in Cincinnati at the age of eight.

The youngster was much more interested seeing the horses walk around the paddock ring than watching the races. Later, she began going to the races at Cahokia Downs in St. Louis, tagging along with her hunter-jumper friends who purchased Thoroughbred horses after the races.

Guillermo rode hunter-jumpers and owned one before leaving for college in California. After graduating she worked at an animal shelter but returned to the racetrack in her late twenties when she met her husband Emil, a horseplayer and college schoolmate of Steven Crist.

The Guillermos went to Bay Meadows every weekend and occasionally to Del Mar in the summer. Guillermo began to notice that there were more breakdowns than usual and said it took a while for her to make the association between medication use and breakdowns.

Once she made the connection, Guillermo stopped going to the races in 1988.

The following year she began to work for PETA, originally hired to head-up its cosmetics-testing campaign. In 1993, she authored “Monkey Business: The Disturbing Case That Launched the Animal Rights Movement (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).”

Guillermo has been in constant contact TSG President Mike Rogers throughout this difficult time. There was an errant report regarding a formal meeting of the two groups today but Guillermo said Monday that the conversation between herself and Rogers will continue.

“I have a great deal of respect for Mike Rogers,” Guillermo told HRI. “Mostly, I want to know what is going on and what they can do about it. Either the CHRB or Santa Anita has to deal appropriately with the issue of pre-existing injuries. Specifically, they all have to look at the trainers of the horses that have died.”

Guillermo grew up a horse person and there probably is no one at PETA who has a better understanding of horseracing. At present, she is horseracing’s best and only friend at PETA.

But when horses die because U.S. horsemen and regulators steadfastly refuse to change its medication policies, even its friends will find the sport's future indefensible and unsustainable.

© Copyright 2019 Mark Berner,

Written by Mark Berner

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