Horse racing is a billion-dollar industry that involves whipped and injured horses who are pushed beyond their limits to sprint around tracks made of hard-packed dirt at breakneck speeds while people perch on their backs. The sport is rife with drug abuse, injuries, race fixing, and many horses’ careers end at the slaughterhouse. But it has been a popular spectator sport in the United States since the 1830s. English traveler William Blane once remarked that the sport “roused more interest than a presidential election.”
In the late 19th century, the popularity of horse races increased dramatically as the automobile became popular and more people could afford to attend events. Moreover, the new oval-shaped racetracks offered a better view for spectators. The speed of the new breed of horses called Thoroughbreds – which were bred to be faster than older, more rugged Arabians — also helped propel interest in horse racing.
While many horses have died catastrophically in races and training, the sport has continued to thrive, largely because of the fact that it is an elitist, high-society, gentrified activity that draws the interest of a certain demographic of wealthy people. And it has benefited from the onset of the Information Age with advances in technology that have improved horse and jockey safety.
However, despite technological advances, horse racing is still a deeply corrupt and inequitable sport that exploits and mistreats its participants. There are crooks who dangerously drug or otherwise mistreat their horses, dupes who labor under the false impression that the sport is broadly fair and honest, and honorable souls who know that the industry is more crooked than it should be but don’t do all they can to fix it.
Injuries and deaths in horse racing are a sad but inevitable part of the business. The sport is rife with illegal electric shock devices used by trainers to intimidate and frighten their horses, and the use of drugs such as Lasix and Salix, which are banned in human sports, to mask pain and enhance performance. Injured horses are pushed to run faster and often sustain severe injuries such as pulmonary hemorrhage, which is caused when their lungs bleed during exercise.
The problem is compounded by the lack of an adequately funded, industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for horses leaving the track. Those who are not adopted by the small number of independent nonprofit rescues often find themselves in a slaughter pipeline where they are forced to compete with other animals for a limited window of opportunity to be “bailed” by speculators who charge arbitrary, and sometimes outrageous, ransoms.
In this era of corporate-sponsored, government-enforced, random drug testing for professional athletes, it is unconscionable that a horse can be forced to risk its life by racing and not receive the medical care it needs. Until there is equal and appropriate protection for all racehorses, the sport will continue to have an undeserved veneer of legitimacy. It is time to change that.