The Death of the Horse Race

Horse racing is one of the oldest of all sports. It evolved from a primitive contest of speed or stamina between two horses into a spectacle that involves large fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment and immense sums of money, but the basic concept has remained unchanged. The winner is the horse that crosses the finish line first.

Throughout history, the prestige and riches associated with horse racing have inspired breeders to try to produce faster equines. Soldiers returning from desert battlefronts told of their opponents’ astounding horses sprinting across the sand, leading English breeders to cross Middle Eastern sires with domestic mares and to create the Thoroughbred, a leaner, more agile breed that became the sport’s standard. The advent of new oval tracks that allowed spectators to get a better view also increased interest in the sport.

But despite the efforts of many, including PETA, the number of racehorses that die each year remains alarmingly high. One study found that one out of every 22 horses suffered a catastrophic injury during a race. Injuries include pulmonary hemorrhage (bleeding out of the lungs), spinal fractures, ruptured ligaments and broken legs. The last-mentioned injuries are particularly devastating. It is not uncommon for a racehorse to go down with a fractured leg and leave the track in pieces, its skin often the only thing holding its limb together.

When a horse is badly injured, its owners have no incentive to keep it on the farm and instead will often sell it. The most common destination for these once-fearsome animals is the slaughterhouse, where it will be ground up into dog food and glue, or exported to Japan, France and other countries as a luxury meat product. Only a small percentage of racehorses are retired to pastures, where they are often neglected and ultimately euthanized or ill-treated.

A major reason why the horse race industry continues to lose fans and money is that a large segment of the public is disgusted by the animal cruelty involved. New would-be fans are turned off by scandals involving drug use and unsafe training practices. Those who remain are increasingly turning to other forms of gambling, which is hurting racing’s bottom line.

While some horse racing aficionados have been forced to acknowledge these problems, the majority of those who make their living in the sport still do not see the need for reform. The apathy of the “silent majority” allows cheaters to continue their exploitation, while forcing young running horses into the racetrack before they are ready and making them susceptible to injuries and breakdowns that end in death at the track or in foreign slaughterhouses. This is not just an issue of morality; it is an issue of survival. The time for reform is now. The racing industry must begin to listen to the voices of those who know best—the horses. If they do not, there will be no awakening of the silent majority.