The Puerto Rico Gaming Commission approved an order Dec. 28 creating a new set of criteria for how Thoroughbred racehorses must be transported to the island on cargo boats, with the goal of having them shipped in a safer and more humane manner.
Anyone who fails to follow the new regulations will be denied access to Camarero Racetrack, prohibited from registering the shipped horses in Puerto Rico, and could be fined $2,500 for each horse shipped in a manner violating the new rules. Owners who repeatedly violate the regulations risk having their racing licenses revoked, according to the order.
The new rules, which go into effect March 28, were hailed by some as a desperately needed overhaul of a practice long considered inhumane, while others saw unnecessary government intrusion that will unfairly hurt racehorse owners who aren't among the industry's wealthiest players.
Puerto Rican racehorse owners have been shipping horses for about 20 years. Beginning in the early 2000s, TOTE Maritime out of Jacksonville, Fla., began allowing the shipping of horses in modified cargo containers. Puerto Rican owners and agents gravitated toward the sea route instead of shipping by plane to save money. An owner spends $1,400 per horse to ship by cargo ship versus $2,500-$3,000 to ship by air. Early on, equine shippers in the U.S. said only broodmares were sent on the cargo boats. Gradually horses in training were added and now most horses being shipped are inexpensive Thoroughbreds claimed at various United States tracks, along with Standardbred racehorses.
Shipping by cargo boat came under scrutiny after an April 2019 incident in which eight horses died while in transit and one had to be euthanized at the port in Puerto Rico because of its extensive injuries. While many horses have survived this trip in the past, a majority also later suffer from illnesses related to dehydration and the stress from shipping, according to Puerto Rican owners, breeders, and the founders of Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare. The containers used for cargo shipping are 40-foot steel boxes with windows cut out of the sides, metal hay racks welded inside, wooden dividers installed to separate the animals, and a fan affixed to a small window on one end to circulate air. Horses, commonly 10-12 but sometimes up to 15, are loaded from one end to the other and stand side by side as if in a starting gate and remain in the container for more than three days.
The tight space, poor air circulation on the boats, and having their heads tied predispose these horses to serious health problems such as pleural pneumonia and laminitis.
The Racing Commission's new regulations go a long way toward improving the travel conditions of the horses being shipped, but they only apply to the shipment of Thoroughbreds involved in racing because they are the only type of horses the agency has jurisdiction over. The Standardbreds shipped to Puerto Rico are frequently used for unregulated racing events.
"I would have liked it better if we had a way to prohibit this kind of treatment for all horses, but if this order changes things economically so that it is as expensive to ship these horses by boat as it is by air, then I'm good with it," said Dr. Jose Garcia Blanco, a veterinarian and bloodstock agent who was interviewed as part of the commission's investigation. "I think it will stop what I see as inhumane and cruel treatment of these racehorses. As for the Standardbreds, to change it completely, we have put enough information out there that other groups can get behind it and act on it."
Florida veterinarian Hiram Pomales, who has signed off on the health certificates for horses being shipped by boat to Puerto Rico for about 20 years, said the new regulations are unnecessary and unfair.
"Why now? When we have been shipping these horses for more than 20 years?" he asked when contacted by BloodHorse. "The people behind this change shipped horses this way for years, why wasn't it cruel back then? We had one bad incident and that was unfortunate but they improved the dividers in the containers. These horses are checked. They are well hydrated. There is no abuse. They have plenty of care and are given antibiotics. They have everything they need to get there well.
"The racing community had been enjoying shipping horses to Puerto Rico this way because they get a break in the price. Requiring these bigger containers, there is no way the people shipping these horses can survive," Pomales continued. "It is sad to see this because many people are not going to be in a position to compete with the rich people. I don't think it is fair, and it's going to hurt racing in Puerto Rico, absolutely."
BloodHorse contacted by email executives with Puerto Rico's two owners organizations—Confederación Hípica de Puerto Rico and Puerto Rico Horse Owners Association—but those emails were not answered. Cano Transport owner Alberto "Cano" Santiago was also contacted by text but did not respond.
Media scrutiny following the tragic deaths in 2019 motivated the Gaming Commission to have Richard L. Simmons Rivera, director of the Horse Racing Bureau, investigate the shipping practice. Commissioners also received a preliminary report dated June 20, 2021, from Gilbert L. Ferrer Nieves that was the results of an inquiry by commission staff.
"In simple terms, federal and state legal provisions allow the transportation of racehorses. In addition, as part of the investigation, the wagon in which the specimens are transported during their maritime crossing was physically inspected, and no illegal conditions or conditions contrary to current federal legislation were found," the Racing Commission order states in reference to Nieves' report.
BloodHorse had the original order translated Jan. 23 from Spanish to English by a GoTranscript.com translator.
"However, we must emphasize that maritime transportation of racehorses lacks state legislation or regulations. In addition, all the involved parties should consider another very important detail, related to equine transportation. The majority of the administrative dispositions or laws in force are stated taking into account terrestrial and air transportation, but not maritime transportation."
The investigations noted the size requirements for stalls when exporting horses by air or by truck is set at eight feet long by 2 1/2 feet wide, according to the "Program Handbook: Exportation of Live Animals, Hatching Eggs, and Animal Germplasm from the United States, 126.96.36.199 Horses."
"These may be reasonable measures for terrestrial or air transportation, but not so for maritime transportation," the order states. "Therefore, the intervention of this Board is necessary to watch over the welfare and health of the equines through a transportation mechanism adjusted to the reality of today's world."
The commission's action took into account, too, the recent adoption of policies by several U.S. racetracks and racing organizations to ban any owner or trainer from participation if they are found to have shipped horses to Puerto Rico by cargo ship. These racing entities include The Stronach Group's 1/ST Racing, Indiana Grand, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, Penn National Gaming, Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, and New York Thoroughbred Breeders.
"We want to point out that several groups and racetracks in the United States are joining this initiative to prohibit the maritime transportation of horses to safeguard their health, which could be counterproductive for our horse racing industry," the order states.
"Therefore, it is our responsibility to ensure the health, welfare, and safety of all components of the horse racing industry, in particular that of the racehorses," the order continued. "In the discharge of our duties and in compliance with the public policy of the Government of Puerto Rico to ensure the welfare and safety of racehorses entering or leaving Puerto Rico, we consider it is necessary to establish some basic rules that will benefit these animals and will help us avoid events such as those that have occurred in the past."
The new cargo shipping requirements are as follows:
1. Stall space must be no smaller than 40 square-feet in area (eight feet long by five feet wide) with a minimum height of eight feet,
2. The stall must be protected from inclement weather, such as the sun, and proper ventilation to maintain a temperature between 70-85º F in the area and equipped with drainage outlets and absorbing matting, to prevent the accumulation of water, urine, or excrement,
3. Each stall must provide enough room to allow a horse to lie down or rest its legs, while also enabling a limited degree of mobility,
4. No more than one horse per stall,
5. Each container must have a minimum of two doors in the front and back to allow the transportation attendant to have access to the horse at all times,
6. All voyages transporting at least one horse must have a transportation attendant for the entirety of the journey. The transportation attendant shall draft a report for each journey regarding the transport conditions, the condition of each equine at the start of the voyage, the signs exhibited by each equine, any difficulties occurred during transport, any injuries the equines have sustained and their cause, as well as the condition of each equine upon arriving to port,
7. The transportation attendant shall feed the equines during the voyage and clean the areas where they are kept every day, in order to remove fecal matter and other waste,
8. Boxes shall be so constructed as to enable the equines to have constant access to water and food, contain no sharp, abrasive, or hollowed surfaces that may wound or harm them; and, the walls of the stall must be padded with impact-absorbing materials as a necessary means of protection against kicking or collisions,
9. The shipment method shall be so constructed as to provide a solid, non-slip ramp of sufficient length and width, that does not exceed 30 degrees of inclination, for a safe and efficient loading and unloading of equines,
10. All voyages must have first aid kits containing veterinary supplies, in order to enable the transportation attendant to treat wounds or care for the basic needs of the equines,
11. The transportation company is responsible for ensuring that the shipment method used for the transportation of racehorses is not placed in unventilated areas, once inside the vessel. It is hereby forbidden to place the shipment method in an area where all its four sides are covered or where the roof is covered by other containers or cargo that impede ventilation in at least one of its longer sides.
All organizations involved in racing in Puerto Rico are required to notify their members about the new guidelines, anyone shipping racehorses to the island by boat are required to notify the Gaming Commission in writing when the shipment will arrive at the port and at Camarero so commission veterinarians can inspect the horses. The commission also reserved the right to inspect the shipping containers at any time.
"I am anxious to see these regulations enforced," said Garcia Blanco. "I think it will only need to happen a couple times and then people will stop. This has been a big step toward improving the treatment of these horses. We're not done, but I'm satisfied with where we are."