As a social justice activist for many years, I’ve seen the power of grassroots mobilization to dismantle systems of oppression.
Last month, animal rights activists saw a major victory in Berkeley. The Stronach Group, owners of the Golden Gate Fields horse racing track that straddles Albany and Berkeley, and Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, announced that it will stop racing at Golden Gate Fields at the end of the 2023 season. The L.A. Times wrote that the racetrack “has come under scrutiny from animal rights activists lately, although it’s not likely that it played a role in this decision.” But activists at Berkeley-based Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) and Stop Blood Sports (SBS) know that years of pressure played a key role.
My own advocacy for the abolition of horse racing started in 2021 when I read that four activists had chained themselves together across the GGF track to publicize the regular killing of injured horses and the incidence of sudden death in horses at GGF. I had to learn more. I found that the cruelty, corruption and violence of the horse racing industry are systemic and attempts at reform are futile. Those saying that horse racing was rotten to its core and that we should end it yesterday were right.
I started to attend DxE protests at Golden Gate Fields in memory of the young horses who had died there. According to the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), in 2022, the death toll was 15. In 2023, eight horses have died (the CHRB divides the deaths between musculoskeletal and all other deaths). The demonstrations raised awareness among the public and the local media. Every time a horse was killed at the track, we would host a memorial and 5K run, exemplifying that, unlike the captive horses, we could choose to run or not.
I later joined a small group of horse racing abolitionists to found Stop Blood Sports. We regularly spoke at city council meetings in Albany (where the track is located) and Berkeley (where the stalls are). We gave council members packets of information about track violations of California Penal Codes ignored by the pro-industry CHRB. We emphasized how Golden Gate Fields harmed our communities: the perpetuation of gambling, the impacts on the psyche of concerned residents, the exploitation of primarily migrant workers, the environmental degradation of 144 acres of shoreline and more. We urged the council members to pass an ordinance or resolution to protect the horses and improve the quality of life for us all.
Berkeley Councilmember Kate Harrison introduced an ordinance, which would hold the entire operation at the stalls in violation of Berkeley’s animal welfare penal codes. The Thoroughbred Daily News called the ordinance a threat to the survival of Golden Gate Fields. Five days later, Stronach Group shocked the industry by announcing its exit from the Bay Area. DxE and SBS, however, weren’t a bit surprised.
To give Berkeley residents a chance to express their views on the race track and any other Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, Compassionate Bay has started a campaign for a ballot initiative, which DxE and several other organizations supported. The measure would ban factory farming in Berkeley and set a precedent for other localities to do the same. We’ve already collected more than 4,000 signatures to put it on the 2024 ballot.
But we cannot rest. The horses trapped inside the Golden Gate Fields stalls are still being used as pawns in a fight within the gambling industry to either be raced in Santa Anita or sent to Cal-Expo to race at various county fairs in Northern California. But, as Samantha Faye, SBS’ lead organizer, says, wherever they are sent, “we will see them there.”
Niloofar Shambayati is a social justice and animal rights activist who joined Direct Action Everywhere after moving from Illinois to Berkeley in 2020 and co-founded Stop Blood Sports in 2022 to help end horseracing/gambling in California.