The Horse Race Is Not As Fun As It Seems

The sight of thundering hooves flying down the stretch in a horse race is one of the quintessential experiences of summer in Kentucky. But the sport’s romanticized facade masks a world of drugs, injuries and gruesome breakdowns. Behind the scenes, thousands of Thoroughbreds die every year to please fans and make money for their owners. The sport’s refusal to address these issues will only tarnish the image of horse racing, and it is time for Congress to pass legislation that requires the industry to enforce animal welfare standards.

Until recently, few Americans knew that horses used for racing are pushed to sprint at speeds so high they frequently suffer catastrophic injuries, such as broken bones and hemorrhaging in the lungs. In addition, many horses are injured and killed during training, when their skeletal systems have not fully developed. A recent study found that one of every 22 thoroughbred races results in an injury preventing the horse from finishing the race, while another study estimates that 3 thoroughbreds die each day during competition.

In ancient times, organized horse races involving chariots or mounted (bareback) riders were popular in the Roman Empire. But knowledge of organized races in other prehistoric societies is scant. In medieval England, professional riders, called jockeys, demonstrated the top speed of horses to potential buyers by racing them over short distances of a quarter, half or mile on open fields and roads. The winner was the first horse to cross a set line or obstacle. The races were supervised by a panel of stewards, who looked at a photo finish when it was impossible to determine a clear victor.

After the Civil War, breeders developed a new breed of faster horse, the thoroughbred, to attract spectators and increase the amount of money that could be won in each race. Cavalrymen needed fast horses for the Civil War and other wars, and breeders began crossing these leaner, faster equines with Arabians and Barbs to develop an even more specialized, speed-oriented breed.

Today, the sport is more sophisticated, but it lacks an adequate wraparound system of aftercare for horses once they stop winning. Instead, too many of them end up in slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada where they are turned into dog food and glue. The few horsemen and women who care about the animals in this sport must commit to serious reform or see their beloved sports falter. They must help the industry establish an industry-sponsored wraparound system for all racehorses. Then they can ensure the future of the sport, and of the horses like Eight Belles, Medina Spirit, Creative Plan and Laoban who were denied a brighter, safer life by their owners.

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