NYT Goes In-Depth on Horse Racing

Warning: Photo of dead racehorse at link

The title of the article helps prepare the reader for the misery that follows: Death and disarray at America’s racetracks – Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys

On average, 24 horses die each week at racetracks across America. Many are inexpensive horses racing with little regulatory protection in pursuit of bigger and bigger prizes. These deaths often go unexamined, the bodies shipped to rendering plants and landfills rather than to pathologists who might have discovered why the horses broke down.


Why racehorses break down at such a high rate has been debated for years, but the discussion inevitably comes back to drugs.

Laboratories cannot yet detect the newest performance-enhancing drugs, while trainers experiment with anything that might give them an edge, including chemicals that bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood doping agents, stimulants and cancer drugs.

Illegal doping, racing officials say, often occurs on private farms before horses are shipped to the track. Few states can legally test horses there.

The piece states that in England, horses are not allowed to race while receiving any type of drug and that the country’s breakdown rate is half that of the United States.  While it’s likely too simplistic a solution to address a comprehensive problem, I can’t help thinking it would be a good, common sense place to start in this country.  If a horse in in pain from an injury or otherwise in need of medication, he should be treated appropriately and not raced until such time as he is completely recovered.  I can’t see any drawbacks to the rule itself, although enforcement might be daunting to implement across the board.

The Times does a good job putting pain and suffering – of both horses and humans – front and center.  After a family outing to a racetrack where her two grandchildren saw a horse’s leg bone snap, puncturing the skin, before he was euthanized on the track, Laura Alvarado wrote a letter to the editor of her local paper:

She said she sent copies of the letter to the mayor, the track, its chief veterinarian, the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Ms. Alvarado expected a response.

She never got one, she said.

I would posit that the mayor, the track, its vet, HSUS and the ASPCA were of one mind when it came to ignoring Ms. Alvarado’s letter:  There is no money to be made in forcing the horse racing industry to clean up and become accountable.

More on Eight Belles and… The Big Picture

The tragic death of Eight Belles at Saturday’s Kentucky Derby is being reported by some as an unfortunate reality that is part of horse racing. Wrong. While any athlete can suffer a life ending injury during competition, that’s a risk they choose to take for themselves – if they’re human. And you can bet that risk is probably low. If they’re horses, well the humans decide what risks are acceptable. In fact, the humans decide everything from conception onward in the lives of racehorses – which horses get (in)bred, what they get fed, what drugs they receive, what age they begin training, etc. So if a thoroughbred is brought into this world at the hand of humans, and every decision regarding that horse’s well being is made by humans – guess who is responsible when that animal dies from an injury on the racetrack? We are. Let’s not comfort ourselves by saying it’s so sad but that’s just part of the sport. It shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t allow it to be.

These horses are pushed too hard, too fast all to satisfy our American need for immediate gratification. This isn’t a phenomenon isolated to thoroughbred racing. We have many Sporting dogs who are “Futurity Nominated” as puppies and showcased in “Sweepstakes” events on a national level. As a breeder, I’ve always appreciated these events as they tell me what dogs to AVOID in the future. Sporting dogs should mature slowly – they should not look like small adults as adolescents. They should look – well, ugly. They need time for their physical and mental selves to develop naturally and bloom fully. Any young animal which looks breathtaking as a youngster is the wrong kind of dog for me. He will go coarse in his adulthood and may produce more like himself. At a dog show, the place to look for breeding stock is the Veterans classes. How do these dogs move at age 8 or 10? That’s the dog for me. A dog who has proven he isn’t going to drop dead from cancer at age 4, who isn’t going to be lame or blind by age 7 and who is still full of the joy of life in his Autumn years – give me that dog any day. The rest of you are welcome to the (often times inbred) 2 year olds who look pretty and have a piece of paper from a registry body that says they’re healthy at 24 months of age. Good luck with that.

Yes, I realize it costs – financially and emotionally – to invest in a prospect without knowing if there will ever be any return. But if you think it doesn’t cost to try and cheat Mother Nature and hurry animals along in competition – you are fooling yourself. And you are part of the problem.

As a society, we like to fall back on certain blame shifting beliefs regarding the killing of animals which help us to sleep at night:

Killing pets in shelters is necessary because there aren’t enough homes for all of them.

Killing Eight Belles on the track was the humane thing to do.

I’m sure PETA enjoys no end of delight every time we utter these ridiculous words. WE are responsible for bringing pets into this world and for the reasons they end up at shelters. WE need to accept responsibility for them and work towards No Kill communities. WE are responsible for pushing immature thoroughbreds to such extremes that they literally kill themselves for our entertainment. WE need to accept responsibility for the humane care and training of these horses. Killing them once they’ve broken themselves under our direction is not the humane thing to do. Standing up and saying NO MORE to the old ways is.

More reading: Pet Connection

Raced to Death – Eight Belles’ Avoidable Tragedy

Eight Belles, a beautiful filly, finished second in today’s Kentucky’s Derby and then broke both her front ankles causing her to be euthanized on the track.

Maybe you’re like me and just don’t get the appeal of horse racing. It makes no sense to me why anyone would want to push physically immature animals to physical extremes when injuries may well equal death for the horse. And those fatal injuries seem to be a tragic tradition. I don’t follow horse racing but like many people, I followed Barbaro’s fight for life after his 2006 racetrack injury which ultimately resulted in his death in early 2007.

This August 2007 article taught me a few things I didn’t know about horse racing. One being that there is no national governing body.

After Barbaro’s breakdown in the Preakness, Bowen and others in the industry realized that they were at a loss to answer a simple question —- How frequently are horses injured? —- which only exacerbated the public outcry over the incident. As a result, the summit participants proposed an injury reporting system that would standardize the process by eliminating inconsistencies from track to track.

Well, that’s one good thing I guess. At least we may get some more reliable numbers on a broader scale than what we’ve seen in the past. And maybe those numbers will help effect change in the racing world. Sadly, there is one more to add to the tally today.