Horse racing is dangerous for horses and humans, who are called jockeys. Horses are forced to run at high speeds, which can lead to fractured leg bones and other injuries. And they are often raced before they have fully matured, putting them at risk of developmental disorders like bowed legs and cracked hooves. They also have an inherent fear of death, which can lead to them biting or kicking each other. Then there are the drugs, which can range from stimulants to painkillers.
The Romans used a drink called hydromel to increase a horse’s stamina, and in the 19th century British racehorses were doped with cocaine and heroin. Even today, the sport has a reputation for drug use, although many trainers swear by natural supplements such as electrolytes and vitamins. And it’s no wonder: the prize money is huge, especially for top finishers in major races.
Whether or not a horse is doped, there’s no doubt that the sport is physically exhausting for both animal and human. Horses, which can weigh up to twelve hundred pounds, are pushed to their limits in short bursts of running, over and over again. They have to jump hurdles, which can be up to two feet tall, and they’re required to gallop for much of the distance of a race. And it’s all done on a hard surface that can cause painful abrasions to their legs and hooves.
As a result, horses are susceptible to a wide range of ailments, including lameness (painful joints) and colic, which is an inflammation of the stomach. The most serious ailment, however, is roaring, which causes horses to whine during exercise and can be fatal. This symptom is caused by a paralysis of the muscles that elevate the arytenoid cartilages of the throat, which opens the airway. This condition is most common in horses over 16 hands tall, and it can be treated with a procedure called tie-back surgery, which involves sutures inserted into the cartilage.
For years, race-day Lasix has been injected into thoroughbreds to prevent pulmonary bleeding from hard running, which can be deadly for these animals. But the drug’s other function — as a diuretic — also gives it the potential to create epic amounts of urine, up to twenty or thirty pounds’ worth.
At the Breeders’ Cup on November 4, in front of a packed grandstand, Santa Anita officials and owners were anxious to avoid a bloodbath. Several of the equine athletes had been drenched with the drug, and it was noted on their racing forms with a boldface “L.”
The horses broke cleanly, but War of Will, that year’s Preakness winner, took the lead around the clubhouse turn. He was joined by Mongolian Groom and McKinzie, both small-framed colts. And then at the top of the stretch, Vino Rosso made a charge. The crowd’s shrieks turned to curses in Spanish and Chinese, as well as a chorus of cries in unison, all uttered by men clad in sweatshirts and jeans.