The Dark Side of the Horse Race

In horse races, contests are held between two or more horses on a course with obstacles. They may be flat races or jumps, but are most often on a dirt or grass surface. The sport dates back thousands of years, and the earliest recorded racing events are chariot races in Asia Minor from the 1500s bc. Bareback (mounted) horse racing was featured at the Olympic Games from 740 to 700 bc.

The earliest races were match contests between two or at most three horses. But pressure from the public led to open races with larger fields of runners. Eligibility rules were established based on the age, sex, birthplace and previous performance of the horses as well as the qualifications of their riders. Races were even created in which owners were the riders and whose field was restricted geographically or to townships and counties.

Today, Thoroughbred horses are bred and raised to run at speeds that can reach 60 mph in short distances, known as sprints. Pushed beyond their limits, these horses are susceptible to painful injuries and breakdowns as well as the gruesome complication of hemorrhage from the lungs, called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. To reduce the risk of bleeding, horses are given cocktails of legal and illegal drugs intended to mask injuries and boost performance.

These substances also interfere with the horse’s natural digestive process, which can lead to diarrhea and vomiting and ultimately decrease its energy level. To make matters worse, many young horses are rushed to the track while their skeletal systems are still developing. As a result, many are unprepared for the physical demands of racing and are prone to fatal fractures, cardiac arrest and death.

Although the equestrian world has made progress in improving conditions for racing horses, growing awareness of the sport’s dark side is threatening to derail these improvements and lead to a decline in spectators and a loss of revenue, races and entries. In response, the racing industry has responded with new rules limiting drug use and requiring better care of injured and sick horses.

The latest controversy involving racehorses centers on allegations of cruelty by two prominent trainers, one in Kentucky and the other in upstate New York. A New York Times article based on video released by PETA illustrates the types of abuse that the animal rights group alleges at some of America’s most revered tracks. It is easy for the sports’ legions of apologists to dodge, deflect and blame the messenger—in this case PETA—for what they see as its hostility toward the sport. But it would be a mistake to confuse hostility to the activist organization with dismissal of its work. Virtually no one outside of racing cares how PETA gets its undercover video; they only care about what it shows.