The Dark Side of Horse Racing

Horse races are a sport that pits equine athletes against each other. They can be a thrilling spectacle, but there is also a dark side to the event that sees many horses suffering a variety of injuries and even death during the course of a race. The emergence of new technology has brought some improvements to the sport, but it will take more than the latest thermal imaging camera or MRI scanner to prevent horses from suffering from abuse at the hands of their trainers and veterinarians.

The most important tool that horse racing can use is a comprehensive, industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for all horses who leave the track. The sport has a long history of neglecting this issue, and the resulting situation is hell for these horses who are left to hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline. If not for the handful of independent nonprofit rescues who network, fundraise and work tirelessly to save them, they are likely to meet a brutal end.

Currently, the only way to stop the slaughter is to have horse racers and gamblers donate to the rescue organizations that try to save them from a fate they do not deserve. But if the stewards and patrol judges at tracks want to put their best foot forward, they should start by addressing this issue. This will require a profound ideological reckoning both at the macro business level and within the minds of racehorse owners, breeders and jockeys. Ultimately it will mean deciding whether the horses matter enough to take the complicated, expensive and untraditional steps necessary to protect them.

It is impossible to say how many horses are abused or killed on the track each year, but it can be estimated that the number is in the thousands. Despite a lack of industry regulation, record keeping and transparency, there is no doubt that the number is much higher than it should be.

The 2008 Kentucky Derby was a harrowing race for horses, who ran against each other under exorbitant physical stress. Eight Belles, the winner of that race, died due to her exertion just over a month later. Her death, along with that of another star-crossed champion, Medina Spirit, sparked a nationwide reckoning of the industry’s ethics and integrity.

Since then, the sport has taken some small steps to improve conditions, including increased drug testing and legislative efforts to better regulate trainers and veterinarians. But for the sport to reach its full potential, it must embrace a bold leap that will set it free of the crooks who dangerously drug their horses and those insiders who condone this behavior and equate real reform with bad PR. This will take money for more advanced and consistent drug testing, legislative efforts to improve training standards and a willingness to abandon the insider’s code of silence. The time for that bold leap is now.