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Horses on cocaine sounds like a twisted spin to George Orwell's Animal Farm, but it is a real issue uncovered in the Indiana horse racing industry recently. Racehorses are commonly pumped with drugs before they race, reports animal rights lobbyist Tali Lavie. Some horses, she adds, are given such a large amount of drugs that they don't feel the pain associated with the run, even though their lungs may be hemorrhaging from overexertion.
According to UK-based Animal Aid, horses destined for the racetrack endure a host of cruelties. These include mutilations such as tubing to increase air flow to the lungs and pinfiring - a crude, painful leg operation used to burn damaged tendons. Many horses suffer extreme bone damage, ulcers and psychological pain.
"I don't have a problem with horse racing," says Lavie, who works for animal rights group Hakol CHAI (Concern for Helping Animals in Israel). "I have a problem when it is mixed with money. When money is factored into the picture, it promotes greed, which leads to abandonment and cruelty to the horses."
Two weeks ago, Lavie and volunteers picketed outside the David Intercontinental hotel in Tel Aviv to protest against the Israel Sport Betting Board (ISBB), the group eager to set up legal horse racing and betting in the country. Inside the hotel, board representatives addressed an annual Israel Business Conference that draws some of the country's leading businesspeople. Hakol CHAI plans a similar demonstration during Hanukka.
The ISBB, a private body operating under guidelines set by the Ministry of Science, Sport and Culture, manages the nation's sports lottery, the Toto. "When we build the hippodromes, we are going to do so with the help of private investors," ISBB spokesman Baruch Dagon told Metro.
Dagon said that all the research Hakol CHAI has presented can be matched with contradictory research from around the world.
"I know the sensitivity of the problem, but we are intending to implement horse racing in Israel as it is in developed countries such as Hong Kong, France and Germany. We are not inventing something new, and we intend to do everything under a license."
Cabinet ministers approved a proposal in July 2004 to allow horse racing and wagering in Israel. It would boost the country's tourism industry, they agreed. In September 2005, Hakol CHAI petitioned against the proposal, noting that the government failed to take into account the cruelty associated with horse racing.
"We don't want the issue to go to the Knesset," says Lavie. "If it goes to the Knesset, we are in big trouble. The Knesset makes the laws; and if a law gets passed for gambling, it cannot be canceled."
Until now, she says, the Knesset has expressed that it does not want gambling in Israel.
Yet according to a source in the Ministry of Agriculture, full-fledged plans for adopting the controversial sport in Israel are underway. Lavie says that the Agriculture Ministry and the ISBB will be partners in building the industry, which is estimated to bring in hundreds of millions of shekels in revenue each year.
"There's a lot of abuse behind the scenes in the horse racing industry," says Lavie, who conducted an investigation via the Internet and found that Tsa'ad, an injured horse who was raced in November in Pardess Hana, was put down on the track after suffering a compound fracture in his leg. The already injured horse reportedly ran 700 meters when he fell and broke his leg. He was euthanized on the side of the track, says Lavie - a common practice in the industry worldwide.
"They knew he was injured and ran him anyway," she maintains, adding that "Horses with broken legs cost too much to fix. It's cheaper to buy a new horse than to repair and keep a damaged one."
In the meantime, both Lavie and Dagon report that the ultimate government decision is on ice, due to the current political turmoil in the country.
Therapist and Torah scholar Shlomo-Zalman Jessel says the Talmud states that gambling invalidates someone to be a witness in a Jewish court. Some arguments suggest that gamblers are not contributors to society; another argument Jessel hints at is that gambling is akin to stealing. "When gamblers win, the losers don't hand over their money with a full heart," he explains. "In a way, it's getting something that is not really coming to you."
Dagon says the government will set standards in the horse racing industry. He estimates that some NIS 300 million per year will pour through betting channels. The money will be used for developing sports and activities for Israeli citizens. Soccer, basketball and occasionally Formula One are the only sports that Israelis can bet on to date, he says.
The government, Dagon affirms, will decide where the two hippodromes will be built. Talks are for locations in the Negev Desert in the south and the Gilboa region in the north. Animal rights issues will be controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture. Dagon thinks that Hakol CHAI is right in taking on the horse racing issue, as it is in line with the group's agenda; but he stands firm that he can provide a lot of research that contradicts what the organization is saying.
Veterinarian Zvia Mildenberg, who specializes in horse virology, will be working to support the developing horse racing industry. She reports that a co-worker was recently sent to Germany to study drug-testing procedures on horses.
She is confident that the law will be passed in the near future and is waiting for construction of the new testing lab to begin. The location will be close to the Volcani Center in Beit Dagan.
"People in Israel are racing horses anyway," she says, citing the Pardess Hana racetrack and the Israeli Arabs and Beduin who race horses in the Negev as examples. In Pardess Hana she knows that bets are being placed under the table.
If the government were to legislate animal rights and welfare laws to protect the horses, she believes the horses would be given better racing conditions than they have now. She told Metro that a development group from one of the world's largest racetracks in Kentucky is considering developing the tracks in Israel.
Mildenberg notes that besides cocaine, about 100 other drugs are used to boost the performance of racehorses. Some are used to speed up the healing process after injury or illness. Israeli drug-testing standards, she says, will be based on Canadian and European regulations; animal rights legislation will be adapted from bodies such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the US.
"Horses love to run. There are special breeds that really want to and have the ability to run and race. These animals need to break from the group and be first," says Mildenberg. "I don't see abuse as a problem that the Israeli horse racing industry will suffer from," she affirms, and bids that it is just a matter of time until horse racing is made legal.