Horse racing is one of the oldest and most fundamental of sports. It has evolved from a primitive contest of speed or stamina to a multimillion-dollar business that involves huge fields, complex electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money, but the basic concept is unchanged: whichever horse crosses the finish line first wins.
It’s a sport that, like other gambling-based businesses, has a reputation for being more than a little crooked. But it has also benefited from the arrival of the information age, with advances in everything from thermal imaging cameras to 3D printing technology allowing trainers to make casts and splints for injured horses.
Despite all that, the industry’s PR problem remains significant. Activists say racehorses are drugged, whipped, and pushed too hard, often breaking down and winding up in slaughterhouses. They argue that trainers often hide doping, and that random-testing rules are not enforced. In response, the Jockey Club and other organizations have made an enormous investment in new safety technology and health measures.
But the skepticism about the integrity of the sport persists, and some people are calling for an end to it. The Atlantic’s story last week (“PETA Accuses Two Trainers of Cruelty”), based on video footage from inside the training facilities at Churchill Downs in Louisville and Saratoga in upstate New York, came as a shock to many people who follow horse racing closely.
The 18 horses that burst from the gate at the Kentucky Derby that day all made it to the finish line safely, but that’s not a good thing. Every one of them had been injected that morning with Lasix, a diuretic, whose name is clearly marked on the racing form. The drug is intended to prevent pulmonary bleeding, which occurs in hard-running thoroughbreds and can be fatal.
But a growing number of veterinarians who care about the welfare of horses have stopped racing, citing ethical concerns and disillusionment with the way the sport is run. Trainers, who rely heavily on prescription drugs and euthanasia to keep horses in training and competing, are routinely accused of over-medicating and over-training their charges, turning them into “zombies.” And that leads to injuries, which are sometimes fatal. It’s a race that, even with all the recent changes, is still a dangerous game for 1,200-pound creatures who can reach speeds of 45 mph.