The Truth About America’s Horse Race

The story that hit the front page of The Times this week, about alleged animal cruelty at two top thoroughbred stables, should not be dismissed as an op-ed by horse racing insiders. It is a powerful illustration that behind the romanticized facade of America’s greatest race, horses are subjected to exorbitant stress and suffering that can end in gruesome breakdowns or death—a reality reflected in the deaths of Eight Belles and Medina Spirit, two of the most beloved champions in recent memory.

Horse racing’s defenders are quick to point out that the sport has made a host of changes since its inception, and that most of these have been aimed at improving safety for horses and jockeys. The industry now has thermal imaging cameras, MRI scanners, and X-rays, and can use 3D printing to produce casts, splints, and other medical devices.

In addition, the rules are much stricter than before, and drugs like phenylethylamine (PEA), amphetamines, and anabolic steroids have been banned. Random drug testing is also in place, and egregious violations are punished. Yet even the best-intentioned veterinarians who work at horse racing tracks are often disheartened by how trainers overmedicate and overtrain their horses, leading to a break down that ends in either a premature euthanasia or a trip to the auction and slaughterhouse.

Despite these improvements, there are still major problems. Fewer people are going to the track and betting on horse races; after World War II, interest in racing waned, and by 2000 only 1 to 2 percent of Americans named it among their favorite spectator sports. The sport has never embraced television as other team sports have, and it struggles to attract the demographic that would most support it. The majority of fans at the track are older, retired blue-collar men, and they tend to curse at the races.

The truth is that horse racing is still an inherently crooked business. There are three types of people in the sport: crooks who drug their horses and countenance such conduct from their agents; dupes laboring under the illusion that racing is broad-based fair and honest; and those masses in the middle—honorable souls who know the industry is more crooked than it ought to be but still won’t give their all to fix it. These are the people who must change if horse racing is to have any future. And they can’t change unless they are willing to tell the truth about what really goes on inside the horse-racing machine. The truth is that horse racing involves dangerous drug abuse, gruesome injuries, a broken system of care, and a routine practice of selling horses into unthinkable fates. This is the story that we need to share. It is time to speak up for the silent majority of horses.