The Kentucky Derby was a race for the ages, but it was also a reminder of the dark side of horse racing: horses routinely die under the exorbitant physical stress of the sport. The deaths of Eight Belles and Medina Spirit sparked a reckoning of the sport’s integrity. But it’s clear that, despite some cosmetic changes, the same problems remain.
The sport of horse racing is rooted in ancient times, when people would drench themselves with libations and mount four-hitched chariots or bareback riders to compete in races. The earliest recorded accounts of horse racing can be traced back to the Greek Olympic Games, held from 700 to 40 B.C.
Modern technology has helped modernize horse racing, making it safer and more predictable for both horses and jockeys. Tracks are now paved with softer materials and better-fitting shoes, and horses are given injections of medicine that allow them to run faster without damaging their bodies. Thermal imaging cameras can spot trouble before it is obvious to the naked eye, MRI scanners and X-rays can identify minor or major health issues, and 3D printing can produce casts, splints and prosthetics for injured or ailing horses.
In the past, horse racing was an insidious and often brutal industry for its horses. The sport was rife with overbreeding, overracing, injuries, breakdowns and drug abuse. Many racehorses were subjected to cruel training methods and a number of illegal drugs meant to mask ailments and boost performance. In addition, the sport was often held up to ridicule and scorn by animal rights activists.
Today’s kinder, safer racehorses are bred to last longer and are less likely to be injured by the hard pounding of running on oval tracks. The horses are also injected with cocktail of drugs designed to help them withstand the strain. The most common drug is Lasix, a diuretic that reduces the risk of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage in horses by helping them to urinate out excess fluid. The drug is noted on the racing form with a boldface L, and it has become commonplace for most thoroughbreds to receive the medication on race day.
Despite some improvements, there has been no real evolution of the racing industry’s business model to put horses first. Instead, the sport is primarily driven by profit, and its profits are increasingly being eaten away by a shrinking audience of fans and declining attendance.
A meaningful overhaul of the horse racing industry to truly prioritize its horses would require a profound ideological reckoning at the macro business level and within the minds of the men and women who run the racehorses. Such a shift would require complex, expensive and untraditional steps — from capping the number of years a horse can be raced to instituting an industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for horses leaving the track. Without such an awakening, horses will continue to hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline.