The Harmful World of Horse Racing

The thrill of feeling the earth shake beneath a cloud of hooves barreling down the stretch is a quintessential Kentucky experience. But horse racing is also a brutal sport that forces horses to run—often under threat of whips and even electric shockers—at speeds so fast that they’re prone to serious injuries and breakdowns, and that ultimately kill them. Behind the romanticized facade of horse racing is a world of drug abuse, animal cruelty, and slaughter.

Across the country, millions of people will go to their local racetracks on Sunday to watch the most famous races and place bets. For a growing number of attendees, betting on horse races is the sole reason for going to the track. The betting industry is estimated to generate billions of dollars for horse racing each year, and bettors can place multiple bets on the outcome of a race, including win bets on individual horses and accumulator bets on the first, second, and third-place finishers.

Amid a pandemic that had shuttered major sports leagues, horse racing found an unexpected influx of new fans. TVG, the all-racing channel included in many sports cable packages, drew crowds of people whose only other exposure to horse racing was cup stacking and cherry-pit spitting on ESPN. But while the industry embraced this wave of newcomers, it largely ignored their questions about race day Lasix, the diuretic that’s given to every thoroughbred before competing. The official reason for this routine injection is to prevent pulmonary bleeding, which hard running causes in many horses. But Lasix’s side effect is to cause horses to unload epic amounts of urine-twenty or thirty pounds’ worth.

When Eight Belles died during the 2008 Kentucky Derby, it sent a ripple through racing fandom. The race was only her fifth; she had won one prior to that, and finished third in two others. But her death, along with the deaths of other racehorses, revealed a fundamental lack of racing industry regulation, transparency, and willingness to do whatever was necessary to attract and keep customers.

As it has evolved over the past 20 years, horse racing has been influenced by a number of technological advances that are impacting race safety. Thermal imaging cameras can detect overheating post-race, MRI scanners can pick up a range of health conditions before they become severe, and 3D printers can produce casts and splints for injured or ailing horses. These advancements are helping make racing safer, but there has yet to be a significant evolution of the industry’s business model with the interests of horses at the forefront. As a result, the racing world is still rife with problems such as injuries and deaths that could have been prevented. The good news is that the industry is finally starting to wake up. But it’s still a long way to go. The real question is whether it will be able to change course in time to save this beloved, but flawed, pastime.

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