The Ugly Underbelly of the Horse Race Industry

horse race

The thrill of feeling the ground shake as a mass of thundering hooves barrels down the stretch during a horse race is one of the quintessential Kentucky experiences. But beneath that symphony of steel and hooves is an ugly underbelly. Breeding 1,000-pound thoroughbreds with massive torsos, spindly legs and fragile ankles is a recipe for breakdowns and injury. Throwing them into intensive training at just 18 months of age and racing them as young as two makes them even more vulnerable to breakdowns and injuries. And the soaring size of race purses and breeding fees have made it more profitable to push horses past their limits, thus increasing their chances of suffering from fatal injuries.

This in turn fuels an industry that is infested with horse abusers. And the rape and slaughter of many of those horses is happening right here at home, as well as in countries around the world, where racing is exported for consumption. This exploitation is driven by greed, but also by an unwillingness to accept that the business model of horse racing simply does not work.

Despite a long-standing history of horse abuse, there are signs that the industry may be starting to change. For example, a new rule passed in January will allow trainers to withdraw injured horses from races if they believe the animal’s life is in danger. That, along with a growing awareness of the dark side of horse racing by both gamblers and fans, has led to some modest improvements.

But to make a real difference in the lives of racehorses will require a profound ideological reckoning at the macro business and industry level as well as within the minds of horsemen. It will mean restructuring the entire system so that a horse’s health and wellbeing is the first priority in every decision, from breeding to racing to aftercare.

It will mean putting an end to the practice of injecting horses with Lasix, a diuretic that has been given to most of the field since the 1960s. The drug’s purpose is to prevent pulmonary bleeding, which hard running causes in a significant number of horses. Besides the obvious risk of death and serious injury, the drug’s diuretic function has horses unloading epic amounts of urine—twenty or 30 pounds worth.

There is no doubt that the current state of horse racing is untenable and that reform is desperately needed. But the answer will be a difficult one to achieve. To succeed, it will require a massive investment in a more natural, equine friendly approach to the sport from the top down. And it will take a long time to see results. In the meantime, we can all support the horses that are struggling to find their way in a brutal business. They deserve our help more than we know.