What happened to the equestrian world’s most noble sport? What was once a world of fine pedigrees, prestige, passion and thrill is now a broken-down industry centered around quasi-racetracks funded by casinos and greed. Racing was once a sport for royals, a show of a trainer’s wit and an animal’s strength and speed. It was a respected and honorable pastime, though racing was never without its scandals, drugs and backstretch tricks. But never in the history of Thoroughbred racing has there been such rampant abuse of the horse than in the last decade. Something has to stop before more horses are broken down by a cruel cycle of breeding, drugging and running into the ground.
A recent New York Times article painted a grim picture of today’s racing industry. I highly suggest you read their investigation, as the data, images and case studies are both enlightening and frightening. On one day in particular – the day Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Kentucky Derby – 23 horses “broke down” across the country. That’s appalling. In what other sport do 23 critical injuries and fatalities go largely unnoticed by the outside world? Yes, there have been commentaries, Congressional hearings, outcries and more, but where is the action? When are people going to say enough is enough?
Growing up, I was infatuated by the world of horse racing. To me, it was a glorious game, a world where the horse was king and stamina and strength triumphed the will of man. No matter how much money an investor pumps into a horse, it’s up to the animal to run or not to run. Racing is a humbling game. But I began to see that the horses were rarely running unadulterated. These animals were shells compared to the horses I lived and breathed each day. Where my horse lives in a pasture 24/7, gets free-choice quality food, is ridden on trails and jumped here and there, has regular veterinary/farrier/dental care and is medicated once in a blue moon with only a gram or two of bute, these horses seemed to be treated as robots. Sure, there are plenty of racehorses with weekly chiropractic visits, every supplement you can name and every other genre or top-quality care. But there are many, many animals who spend 23 hours a day in a 12′ by 12′ stall. They eat out of a hay net; get pumped with drugs to dull their pain, build their muscles, keep their lungs from bleeding when they run; they’re taken out an hour a day and run around a track, then put on a hotwalker (or hand walked, if they’re lucky). In the purest sense, this is not cruelty, but it’s close.
Then there is the matter of breeding. In our quest for speed, we breed horses with little regard for proper bone proportions, for muscling and heart. In our rush to win the Derby, we throw 2 year old animals onto racetracks and expect them to compete. My horse is going to be 17 years old next month, and he can still jump a solid 4’3″ jumper course. Most racehorses are retired by the close of their three-year-old season. The rare horse will race as a four- or five-year-old. Some don’t even make it past two. Whereas horses in almost every other sport spend their first three years of life building up their bone mass and muscle by running around in pastures and being trained on the ground, racehorses have likely already felt the weight of a saddle by year one. It’s no wonder their bones can’t take the strain.
There’s no way to wipe the slate clean; no way to start over in an industry that’s unkind to second chances. The legislation that exists is useless; many drug regulations go unenforced. When a horse does breakdown, the reaction is often a mere shrug of the shoulders. A handful of states require necropsies whenever a fatality occurs, though they are rarely performed. In an industry this overrun with problems, it’s overwhelming just thinking of where to start.
While better pre-race veterinary work would help, tracks are unwilling to fund such comprehensive exams, which take up time and money. Horses should not be allowed to race with any sort of drug in their system, period. Even Lasix, the anti-bleeding drug, should go. It’s a radical move, but if an animal can’t run without bleeding through the nose, I don’t think it belongs on a track. Breeding needs to change too, but the modern Thoroughbred is so messed up at this point – a spindly-legged thing with a heart too big to quit – that the breed is almost doomed to run itself into the ground. Valiant efforts have been made to improve racing surfaces, but the fact is that tracks aren’t the problem. A rough surface will increase breakdown rates, but they aren’t the cause – weak, drugged animals are.
Racing once mystified me – it captured my imagination and made me dream of a day where I would take part in sending a mighty Thoroughbred to the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby. Now, though, the world of racing mystifies me in another sense – it shocks and saddens me. It is more horror story than fairy tale. Feel good stories are great until the horse has to be put down; and while there are still those special homebreds that rise up and capture a cup or crown before retiring to glory on a stately Kentucky farm, those stories are fewer and farther between than ever.
I’m not an animal rights activist; I’m not a PETA supporter or a bleeding heart. I realize that I own a horse and expect it to do a job as part of my sport, and I stand behind my actions in caring for him. But something about racing stinks, and until it turns around and starts treating horses as animals rather than disposable income streams, I want nothing to do with the sport of kings.