The Inevitability of Dead Racehorses

On the central matter of “casualties” and “catastrophic breakdowns,” while drugs, pre-existing injuries, track conditions, etc. are all certainly relevant, the simple truth is that the maiming and destruction of racehorses is inherent to the industry. Death at the track is, always has been, and always will be an inevitable part of racing.

And here’s why:

First, the anatomy. The typical horse does not reach full maturity – his bones are not done growing, plates not done fusing – till around six. And the higher up the body, the slower the process, so that the bones in the spine and neck, of all places, are the last to finish. The typical racehorse is thrust into “training” at around 18 months – and raced at two. On the maturation chart, a 2-year-old horse is the rough equivalent of a 6-year-old child. Imagine that. And this is something that will not change, for waiting till six to train and race horses would be cost prohibitive. It’s never going to happen.

Second, the horserace itself is an unequivocally unnatural act. “Born to run, love to compete” is a lie, at least in how the industry means it. Horses running and playing in an open field bears no resemblance to what happens at a racetrack. There, perched humans compel their charges to a breakneck speed – with a whip. There is no choice, no free will, no autonomy for naturally autonomous beings. Furthermore, in nature, horses understand self-preservation. So if injured, they know to stop, rest, and if possible, heal. At the track, not only are many of the injured “urged on” by their whip-wielding mates, but in a cruel twist, often try desperately to stay with their artificial herds. Again, no change is forthcoming, for the horserace can only exist by force.

Third, the economic realities of the business. The racing people are fond of saying, “since our success depends on healthy, happy horses, why would we do anything to compromise that?” Well, first, happy is more than mere sustenance and shelter; healthy is more than a mere ability to run. But beyond that, it’s crucial that the public understands how this industry works: The vast majority of racehorses are bought and sold multiple times over the course of their so-called careers, careers that generally don’t last long to begin with. So, the earning window for the current connections is almost always short-term – could be a few races, maybe a few months, perhaps a year or two – but the bottom line is that as a rule, the long-term well-being of the horse is of no concern. It’s maximize profits now, by all means – legal or otherwise – available.

And because most horses are worth less than a decent used car, and because most purses are artificially jacked with casino cash – cash that also allows many tracks to pay first through last – the horseman’s breakdown-risk to earnings-reward ratio is quite attractive. And because there’s always ample, affordable inventory, when problems do arise, they can always dump off to the next guy and acquire anew.

This leads to my final and most important point: The fundamental relationship itself – that of owner-owned – guarantees bad things will happen. Guarantees. By definition, a piece of property, a commodity, a resource, a means – all of which undeniably describe the racehorse – can have no meaningful protection under the law. In fact, it’s absurd to argue otherwise. Truth is, a horseman, if he so chooses, can run his horse into the ground – yes, even to death – with virtual impunity. There is no real accountability because this core relationship precludes real accountability. Neither the industry nor our society will ever, could ever, seriously punish a property owner for crimes against his property. Again, to say differently is pure folly.

Moreover, as it is with all animal-exploitation businesses, the law, as represented by anti-cruelty statutes, invariably defers to “common industry practice”; for 150 years of American horseracing, broken and dead bodies have been seen and treated as an unfortunate cost of doing business. In short, no one is watching; no one cares. In truth, to the racing industry, to government, to our society at large, a racehorse’s life does not matter. Alive or dead, it just doesn’t matter. So because of all this, I’m here to argue that short of shuttering the betting windows altogether, there is nothing they can do to stop the carnage. Nothing. And what’s more, they know it.

– Patrick Battuello

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  1. Anyone who really loves animals can see how wrong this exploitation is. There is no other side to this story

  2. Patrick,

    What a well written summary. Your comments are so true. No matter what they do, there will always be breakdowns and death. The track has been, and will always be a death mill. The only course of action is to educate and dissuade the bettor. Take away the bettor and you have no track.

    It all happens at the window, and that is where they could feel an impact. As it is, the track is a ghost town during the week for simulcasting. The only people there are a few elderly gamblers spending their social security. The track attendance has depleted over the last 5 years, and I know that tracks across the country are hurting, and continue to go under. The new Meadowlands in NJ is losing money, and I know that there is talk of Monmouth Park in NJ and Aqueduct in NY closing. Hooray!!!! I hope it comes to fruition. Think of all the lives that would be saved. The average age at the track is 65, which tells me they are not able to attract the young, which is a blessing.

    I truly believe that racing is dying, a slow death, but it is dying. Just not fast enough for any of us on this blog, and not fast enough for the thoroughbred’s, who continue to die in unprecedented numbers. I feel so helpless, and wish we had the power to stop it all. Marlene Thornley

  3. You are so right, Patrick. And that is why racing can NEVER be “cleaned up”.

    The horse is the commodity in this corrupt business and will never be treated otherwise because that is the very foundation of racing.

  4. And what is the saddest part of this story? A tiny number of very successful horsemen have played the game the right way and have never been associated with a dead horse.
    Nobody seeks out these people for wisdom or advice; As you correctly stated in the last paragraph,

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