On the central matter of dead horses, a simple truth: Death, or at least a certain level of it, is built into the horseracing system. Killing is inevitable. And here’s why:
First, the anatomy. Racehorses are (selectively) bred for speed; speed is all that matters. So, we get 1,000-pound Thoroughbreds with massive torsos, spindly legs, and fragile ankles – a recipe ripe for breakdowns. To borrow an old highway-safety ad: speed kills.
In addition, a 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, however, is thrust into intensive training at 18 months, and raced at two – the rough equivalent of a first-grader. In the necropsies, we see time and again 4-, 3-, even 2-year-old horses dying with chronic conditions like osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease – clear evidence of the incessant pounding these unformed bodies are forced to absorb. And this is something that will not change, for waiting till five or six to begin training 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, via a whip, their already-anxious charges to a breakneck speed that not insignificantly often takes place in close quarters. 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 onward by that aforementioned whip, 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.
In addition, the unnatural way the horses are kept contributes to the toll. Most racehorses are locked, alone, in tiny stalls for over 23 hours a day. Beyond being unspeakably cruel – horses are, after all, social animals – depriving them of regular pasture turnout adversely affects bone density, which can and does lead to breakdowns on the track. And when combined with a lack of natural forage (grass), confinement creates a higher-than-normal risk for often-fatal colic/impactions. Furthermore, the concentrated nature of these tracks – hundreds if not thousands of horses under one roof – leads to, again, a higher-than-normal risk for deadly infections.
Third, economics. The vast majority of racehorses are bought and sold multiple times over the course of their “careers.” So, the earning window for the current “connections” is almost always short-term, meaning, as a rule, the long-term well-being of the horse is of no concern. It’s maximize profits now, by whatever means necessary (think drugs). And because most racehorses are worth less than a low-end used car, and because most purses are jacked up by subsidies – casino 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 simply dump off that risk to the next guy and acquire anew.
This leads to my final and most important point: The fundamental relationship itself – that of owner-owned – ensures that at least some bad things will happen. By definition, a piece of property, a commodity, an asset, all of which undeniably (and legally) 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.
The above is not to say there’s nothing that can be done to reduce the killing. But to what end? We estimate that over 2,000 horses die at U.S. tracks every year. If they were to magically (and it would be magic) halve that, would that, then, be acceptable? 1,000 dead horses? For $2 bets? Here’s all you need know: As long as this industry is allowed to continue, racehorses will die. Guaranteed. And that, America, should be enough.