Horse races have been around for thousands of years and continue to be one of the most popular spectator sports. But behind the glamorous facade of horses dressed in their finest clothes prancing down the track while fans sip mint juleps lies a dark reality of injuries, drug abuse and gruesome breakdowns. These horses are forced to run—often for their lives—at speeds so high they often sustain major injuries, hemorrhage from their lungs and are shipped off for slaughter in foreign slaughterhouses. Growing awareness of these conditions has led to some reforms, and more are being planned.
But while racing leaders and the public genuinely care about the well-being of their animals, they cannot seem to agree on what to do about it. They fall into three basic camps: those suspicious of the sources of PETA’s allegations, downplaying them or even blaming the messenger; those who use them to bolster their argument for change; and those who merely declare themselves shocked.
The earliest recorded races were match races between two or at most three horses, with the owners providing the purse and a simple wager. In time, rules were developed based on age, sex, birthplace, and previous performances that allowed the sport to expand to include many more participants. In these races, the best horses earned the most money, a system that became known as handicapping. To ensure fairness, each participant was assigned a weight to carry, which could be adjusted based on a variety of factors, including the size and experience of the jockey and trainer and the condition of the track. A record of the races was maintained by disinterested third parties, who came to be known as keepers of the match book.
In modern times, technology has made horse racing even more sophisticated, with horses and their jockeys subjected to a rigorous on-track regimen that includes thermal imaging cameras and MRI scanners for the detection of heat exhaustion and injury. X-rays and endoscopes help identify preexisting conditions that may aggravate a racehorse’s injuries. 3D printing produces casts, splints and prosthetics that can be used for injured or disabled horses.
Despite these advances, however, the number of horse fatalities continues to rise. Thirty deaths at Santa Anita in 2019 alone prompted the adoption of new safety rules, and California now has a database that catalogues equine injuries and deaths. But a comprehensive industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution is sorely lacking. Instead, a few independent nonprofit rescue groups and individuals are left to network, fundraise and work tirelessly to save racehorses who are bailed out of stables only to hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline.
Racing leaders can point to a series of mistakes that have eroded the sport’s popularity, including its resistance to television and its failure to market itself to young women and families. But they can’t avoid the fact that the public is increasingly aware of the cruelty that lingers beneath its surface and is losing interest in this long-standing, revered sport.