The Horse Race Industry

A horse race is a sport in which horses are pitted against one another, jockeyed and whipped to the limits of their physical ability. Pushed beyond their natural limits, a great many of these animals will die. And those who survive are often discarded into a world where they spend the rest of their lives, confined in solitary confinement, as they await their fate at the slaughterhouse.

It has never been a great industry for the animals it employs. Even when there are victories, the overwhelming majority of racehorses will ultimately be euthanized. And when the inevitable tragedies occur, racing aficionados often blow off the concerns of animal rights activists and the public at large.

Almost from the beginning, horse races were dangerous. The Romans used a drug called hydromel to make their horses run faster, and punishment for cheating was crucifixion. Oliver Cromwell banned the sport along with gambling, wrestling and other activities he deemed sinful, but a century later Charles II reinstated it, with rules to safeguard the welfare of participants and spectators alike.

The rule book quickly became a living document, expanding with each new season to cover everything from the responsibilities of trainers and jockeys to the types of medication and equipment that were legal and not. But rules were rarely enforced. The stewards of racetracks couldn’t keep up with the many drugs available, and officials had little power to punish a trainer who violated regulations in one state or country.

As a result, a system of doping grew up around the sport. Powerful painkillers, anti-inflammatories, growth hormones, blood doping, insulin manipulation, the use of a sedative called Lasix to mask the effects of illegal stimulants and even cocaine and heroin were regularly used.

Horses were also deprived of basic food and water, given unnecessarily long workouts and trained too young, pushed to their limits and beyond. In the end, a great many-PETA estimates ten thousand American thoroughbreds every year-will suffer from broken legs and catastrophic heart attacks and will die.

A few years ago, Congress decided that it was unwilling to see so many horses die for the sake of profit, and passed legislation requiring a national safety standard. A new agency, the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority, began enforcing those standards last July.

But if racing really wants to help its horses, it will have to do more than slap a few new laws on the books. It will have to confront the reality of a modern society, culture and justice system that increasingly recognizes animals as entitled to certain fundamental rights. The rights that were taken from Eight Belles, Medina Spirit, Keepthename, Creative Plan and countless other horses to come. Let’s not allow it to happen again. The horses deserve better. And the sport deserves a chance to change. That change must begin with an honest reckoning of its true costs. Then it can begin the process of becoming a more humane business.