Horse racing is a sport of mythology and magic, where fans don fancy outfits and sip mint juleps while watching horses run by with the help of whips. But behind the romanticized facade of the sport lies a world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter.
This week, The Atlantic published a piece on the treatment of top race horses at two of America’s most revered tracks—Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, and Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York.** The piece, based on a new video by animal-rights group PETA, shed light on what is essentially an industrialized form of breeding and training horses to race.
The emergence of this video is a major turning point for horse racing, which has suffered a dramatic decline in fanship and revenue since the Great Recession. This is in large part due to growing awareness of the exploitation and cruelty that the industry is rife with.
While racing has retained many of its rules, traditions, and etiquette, it has been significantly impacted by technological advances, with races now more closely monitored than ever on and off the track. Thermal imaging cameras can detect when a horse is overheating after running, MRI scanners and X-rays can pick up on any number of minor or serious health conditions before they become life-threatening, and 3D printing can produce casts, splints, and prosthetics for injured horses.
Many of these advances were prompted by an increased awareness of the dark side of the sport, which was fueled by PETA’s groundbreaking investigations into abusive training practices for young horses and the use of drugs and illegal electric-shock devices on horses. A growing chorus of critics has also taken aim at the industry’s reliance on gamblers, who are subjected to an array of hidden fees and taxes that make it nearly impossible to win money without cheating.
Horses are bred to be fast, and they are pushed beyond their limits in races. Most of them will bleed from their lungs, a condition called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. To decrease the amount of blood lost, a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs are used to mask the pain of the bleeding and enhance performance.
The crooks who dangerously drug and mistreat horses are a small percentage of the total industry, but it is a large enough proportion to hurt the overall reputation of the sport. And there are plenty of people—neither crooks nor dupes—who labor under the false fantasy that racing is broadly fair and honest, but who also aren’t doing enough to improve things. The deterioration of the industry is a shame, and it’s time to end it.****