What is a Horse Race?

A horse race is a sport in which the animals are driven to run at speeds that cause injuries and, often, even fatal hemorrhage from the lungs. The earliest races were match races between two or at most three horses. The owners provided the purse, and bettors made a wager on whether one or more of the horses would win. The agreement was documented by disinterested third parties, who were called keepers of the match book. A horse who withdrew forfeited a portion of the money or, later, the entire purse.

As demand for racing expanded, the matches were replaced by open races, and more complicated rules were put in place to determine eligibility for different levels of races. These rules accounted for age, sex, birthplace, and previous performance in order to maintain a level playing field. Many of these races were written with optional claiming clauses, which meant that a horse could be claimed by another owner for the right to run in the race. The claiming races were intended to provide class relief and a risk-reward situation for horses that might not be fast enough to win at higher levels.

Today, horse racing is losing fans, betting money, and race days at an alarming rate. The sport is awash in scandals, ranging from doping and alleged abuse to injuries and breakdowns. Many new would-be fans are turned off by the sport’s image, which is tainted with images of horse cruelty. The sport has yet to develop an adequate, industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for retired racehorses. Instead, most are sent to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada, where they can expect a horrific end.

The most recent video from PETA has brought the issue of animal cruelty to the forefront of thoroughbred racing in America, and it will remain there through the Triple Crown season. That’s because the mainstream press is also covering it, and the mainstream press is a powerful tool for change.

This story will be a defining moment for horse racing in this country, and it will determine the fate of young running horses like Eight Belles, Medina Spirit, Creative Plan, Laoban, and many others. The good news is that there are plenty of equine advocates in the sport who want to see it reform. They just need the support of the industry to do it.

It is time for the horse racing industry to stop wasting time and money on publicity stunts, and focus instead on addressing its core business issue: the cruel exploitation of young running horses. The industry can start by addressing its lack of a wraparound aftercare solution for ex-racehorses who hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline, where they are subjected to arbitrary ransoms and horrendous deaths. Donations by industry folks and gamblers are essential, but they do not cancel out participation in the ongoing, deadly exploitation of the younger generation of runners who will one day rely on those donations to survive.