Today is a shameful day for my City. To be sure, it’s a shameful day for society, in general.
On this day, folks in Baltimore and people around the world gather at the Pimlico Race Course and around television sets to watch the exploitation of horses in the Preakness Stakes, the second race of the (in)famous Triple Crown.
Behind this largely popular “sporting event” are some deep, dark secrets which the multi-billion dollar horse racing industry works diligently to keep under wraps. I ask you, therefore, are you ready and willing to speak up for the horses?
The Cruelty of Horse Racing
When you think about it, the realities of horse racing are largely private. What the public views is only a brief glimpse into the life of horse racing—one short race amid years of build up—yet at each phase in a race horses’ life, there’s cruelty abound, year-round.
In my day-to-day life, the term “stud” is generally intended a compliment. In the world of horse racing, however, a stud is a prison sentence. Stud horses are confined to a life of breeding.
Thousands of thoroughbreds (horses of a pure breed) are bred each year. According to The Horse Fund, only 5-10% of horses bred for racing ever see a race course. The remaining 90-95% are “disposed” of, typically meaning they’re either surrendered to equally abusive situations or slaughtered. Glue or dog food, anyone?
The horses selected for racing begin training so early in their lives (around one and a half years old) that their bone structure will not even be fully developed—a serious problem for their health. Is this really necessary? Well, equine veterinarian Dr. Sheila Lyons has been quoted saying,
Pushing these immature 2 year old horses for speed before they have reached physical and mental maturity is recklessly dangerous and systematically damaging for the animal while also proving to be unreliable for the prospective buyers as a predictor of future racing ability. (Source.)
So we understand that beginning training while a horse is still young is risky for the horse and yet offers little return in terms of performance. Thus, the dangerously early start, sadly, doesn’t preclude further additional training abuse.
Now, baseball gets a bad rap for players using performance enhancement drugs. I bet you didn’t realize that a similar issue is rampant in the horse racing industry. Indeed, owners are illegally drugging their horses for the sake of performance enhancement or just to mask injuries. It’s such a problem, in fact, that the Horse Fund quoted one reporter speaking bluntly, “[f]inding an American racehorse trained on the traditional hay, oats, and water probably would be impossible.”
So, what complicated cocktails of drugs, exactly, are being injected into horses? Well, some possibilities could include anything from “bronchodilators to widen air passages, hormones to increase oxygen, cone snail or cobra venom injected into a horse’s joints to ease pain and stiffness, and a “milkshake” of baking soda, sugar, and electrolytes delivered through a tube in the horse’s nose to increase carbon dioxide in the horse’s bloodstream to make them less tired“…just to name a few. In fact, it’s estimated that there may be thousands (yes, thousands) of different drugs being given to race horses. And if that’s not alarming enough, consider that some horses even have batteries hidden in their skin to administer an electric shock when they’re not going fast enough. Yep.
Beyond the drug use, the standard whipping remains a significant problem. Though there are apparently penalties for “excessive whipping” (but, I mean, is one whip of the jockey’s crop not excessive?), most horses are whipped an average of 30 times a race. It’s curious that this practice continues despite potentially crippling effects, as was scrutinized about the jockey who whipped American Pharoah 32 times in the Kentucky Derby.
The Dangers of Racing
Horse racing, where injuries can often be fatal, is extremely dangerous for horses. Being in the race alone is a risk, as injured or unfit horses are often pressed forward rather than allowed the time needed to heal. NPR reports on a study of horse racing practices, which found, “horsemen are tempted to just act badly, to not take into consideration the health of their horse,” quoting Walt Bogdanich. “You can either turn out a horse for two weeks and let him heal on his own, or you can give him a few shots and run him back in seven days and maybe hit the board in third place and get enough money to pay for three more months in training. So those were the sort of choices that were offered…” And here we’re talking just about injuries before the race even starts.
As the Wikipedia entry on racehorse injuries so bluntly begins, “[r]acehorse injuries and fatalities are a side effect of training and competition.” That line is delivered so matter-of-fact that is seems unquestionable. But why is this an accepted reality?
Recovery from injury is so challenging for horses, that most injuries result in death—through euthanasia. What’s a bit more disturbing, however, is that the industry term for racehorse injuries is “breakdown”—as if we’re talking about a machine! The horse racing industry seems unconcerned at the likelihood and frequency of injuries and fatalities among their horses, except when it comes to light in a very public race, as it had last year during the 141st Preakness, when four horses were killed and 12 others noted as injured in a single Preakness day.
While the public only becomes privy to the potential tragedy of horse racing when a horse dies at a major event, the fatalities are not limited just to these public races. In fact, the New York Times reported in 2012 that 24 horses on average die each week on racetracks in America!
The “Lucky”: Life After the Course
So we see that it’s not uncommon for a horse to suffer a fatal injury while racing. But even the 5-10% of horses that make it to the races—and then manage to survive—aren’t immune to a fate of slaughter. Sadly, award winning horses have met their demise at slaughterhouses—like Ferdinand, a 1983 Kentucky Derby winning horse that was later named “Horse of the Year,” and Exceller, a 1986 Kentucky Derby winner; both slaughtered.
For those horses that aren’t slaughtered, however, and make it into retirement alive, can we really say they’re lucky? Given how early a racehorse’s rigorous training begins, it’s no wonder that horses who are “lucky” enough to find themselves in retirement on farms and at animal sanctuaries live out their lives with chronic pain and mangled bodies, often suffering from severe arthritis (like Doogie, a Pimlico racer rescued at Burleigh Manor Animal Sanctuary). Racehorse retirement suddenly doesn’t sound as picturesque as the industry would have us believe.
But what’s the point? Why do we put these animals through torture. It’s all…for the sake of what?
Horse racing is a multi-billion dollar industry, with millions upon millions of dollars resting on each race in the form of bets (both legal and illegal, for sure). So horses are bred and (if not discarded) forced to endure grueling training, subject to drug use, and often end up living out their remaining days in severe pain (if they’re not fatally injured or slaughtered, that is), all for the sake of gambling. And it’s no small paycheck, either. Betting for the Triple Crown exceeds $100,000,000!
According to a 2015 Economic Impact of Preakness report, “Preakness day wagering reached $85,814,142 on the entire racing card, with $6,177,230 bet in-state.” In a single day! So clearly this is no small industry, which also means that my beloved state of Maryland is quite set on preserving its horse racing legacy…with my taxpayer dollars.
But in all this, who are we considering? The State’s betting on the animals, and definitely bringing in big bucks. Major win for the State. And people are betting. They’re betting on animals, and they sometimes win. But the horses never win.
In horse racing, the horses but tools. We don’t learn of their personalities, we don’t follow up to understand how they’re treated. We know their names, but we seem more frustrated than heartbroken when a race horse dies. We’re too caught up in our own experiences of the race to even acknowledge that animals are being fervently abused.
Personal Thoughts on Preakness
If it’s not clear yet, I’ll be quite frank: I find horse racing utterly disgusting. I am so ashamed to live in a City that prides itself on its horse racing legacy. I am saddened by the fact that, as I write this, I am sitting less than 3 miles from where this awful event is happening right now. And I am disappointed as I check my social media feeds to find many friends joyously celebrating the occasion. Because besides the gross animal cruelty, I haven’t even touched on the racism and classism rooted in these events! There is absolutely nothing admirable about today, the Preakness Stakes, or horse racing, generally. I do hope I’ve made that understandable, and perhaps prompted a critical evaluation of a beloved industry that’s truly not worthy of such love.
When everyone’s caught up in the betting and the garden attire and wondering which horse’s owner has a chance at winning the Triple Crown, I hope you’ll be a voice speaking for the horses.
This post is dedicated to Homeboykris and Pramedya, along with all the other victims of this “sport.”
- Death and Disarray at America’s Racetracks
- Four Confirmed Kills on Preakness Day
- Horse Death at Preakness Highlight Stark Reality of Racing
- Horse Racing: America’s Most Dangerous Game?
- Horse Racing Fact Sheet
- Horse Racing is Animal Abuse? You Bet.
- Horse Racing Should be Judged On a Whole—Not Just On a Day of Tragedy
- Is Horse Racing Cruel? (By the League Against Cruel Sports)
- Life After Racing: From Stud to Slaughter
- Loss of American Civility…The World of Sports—How Does the Horse Feel About It?
- The Hidden Cruelty Behind the Glamour of the Horse Racing Industry
- The Tragic Toll of Horse Racing
- The Ugly Truth About Horse Racing
- There Are No Winners: Horse Racing is Unethical
- Tragedy at the Preakness Renews Questions About the Safety of Horse Racing