What’s Wrong With Horseracing?
So what, you ask, is wrong with horseracing? Well, there’s this:
Would-be racehorses are forever torn from their mothers, families, and herds as mere babies. Sold, usually, at the tender age of one; broken, an industry term meaning to be made pliant and submissive; alone and terrified their servitude begins.
Grinding of Unformed Bodies
The typical horse does not reach full musculoskeletal maturity – bones not done growing, plates not done fusing – till around the age of six. And the higher up, 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 intensive training at 18 months, and raced at two – on the maturation chart, the rough equivalent of a first-grader. In the FOIA documents, 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 pubescent bodies are forced to absorb.
Confinement and Isolation
In perhaps the worst of it, racehorses are kept locked – alone – in tiny 12×12 stalls for over 23 hours a day, making a mockery of the industry claim that horses are “born to run, love to run,” and a cruelty all the worse for being inflicted on naturally social, herd-animals like horses. At a 2019 NYS Senate hearing, prominent equine veterinarian Dr. Kraig Kulikowski likened this cruelty to keeping a child locked in a 4×4 closet for over 23 hours a day. Imagine that.
Relatedly, practically all the horse’s natural instincts and desires are thwarted, creating an emotional and mental suffering that is brought home with crystal clarity in the stereotypies commonly seen in confined racehorses – things like cribbing, wind-sucking, bobbing, weaving, pacing, digging, kicking, even self-mutilation.
Control and Subjugation
The racing people thoroughly control every moment of their assets’ lives – control that is often effected through force, and through the tools of their trade: cribbing collars, nose chains, lip chains, tongue ties, eye blinders, mouth bits, and whips. On that, the very public flogging administered to racehorses would land a person in jail if done to his dog in the park. But at the track, it’s all just part of the tradition.
Drugging and Doping
Racehorses are injected, legally and otherwise, with myriad performance-enhancing, injury-masking, and pain-numbing chemicals. The horsemen’s credo is really quite simple: keep ’em out on the track, keep ’em earning, by whatever means necessary.
By law, racehorses are literal chattel – pieces of property to be bought, sold, traded, and dumped whenever and however their people decide. To make matters worse, they are not even afforded the protections, woefully inadequate as most are, of animal-cruelty statutes, meaning an owner or trainer can run his horse into the ground – yes, even to death – with virtual impunity. What’s more, the average racehorse will change hands multiple times over the course of his so-called career, adding anxiety and stress to an already anxious, stressful existence. This near-constant shuffling among trainers, grooms, vets, barns, tracks, and states is a primary reason why almost all active racehorses suffer from chronic ulcers.
Horseracing Wrongs has documented – with names, dates, locations, and details – almost 10,000 deaths at U.S. tracks just since 2014; we estimate that over 2,000 racehorses are killed across America every year. Over 2,000 – that’s about six every single day. And to be clear, death at the track is neither clean nor tranquil. Death at the track is cardiovascular collapse – this, mind you, to animals who are mostly still in puberty. Death at the track is pulmonary hemorrhage – or bleeding out from the lungs. Death at the track is blunt-force head trauma from collisions with other horses or the track itself. Death at the track is broken necks, severed spines, ruptured ligaments, and shattered legs – occasionally shattered so severely that the limb remains attached to the rest of the body by skin or tendons only.
Death at the track also comes back in the stalls with things like colic, a painful, terrifying abdominal affliction; laminitis, excruciating inflammation in the feet; respiratory infections; neurological disorders; parasitic infestations; or, as we often see in the FOIA documents, they’re simply “found dead in the morning.”
The prevailing wisdom, backed by two independent studies and industry admissions, is that most – some 10,000-15,000 annually – spent or simply no-longer-wanted racehorses are brutally bled-out and butchered at “career’s” end.
So the real question is why, in the 21st Century, do we still countenance this horror? Why is this viewed as some inviolable tradition (“The Sport of Kings”), an institution that merits preservation? Fact is, stripped to its core, horseracing is nothing but an archaic, mostly non-self-sufficient (see subsidies) gambling business that exploits, abuses, and kills sentient beings, inherently, and inevitably. In other words, it cannot be fixed or reformed. In other words, horseracing is wrong from the start.
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.
If horseracing is a sport, then that word must be redefined, for “The Sport of Kings” resembles no other accepted sport on the planet. In what other sport are the athletes:
condemned to a life as literal chattel?
kept in intensive, solitary confinement?
led around by lip chains and controlled with chunks of metal in their mouths?
whipped – beaten – for motivation?
afflicted with osteoarthritis as adolescents?
routinely dying on the playing field?
bled-out and butchered upon retirement?
A sport? If not for the gravity involved, ‘twould be absurd. No, horseracing is but exploitation of a weaker species for among the most shameful of reasons – $2 bets. To those who sustain this sordid business, we say: Slake those gambling urges with decidedly inanimate slots and scratch-offs; leave the horses out of it. To those who trade in equines in the pursuit of cash and fleeting glory, we say: Find a commodity that doesn’t bleed; take up a hobby that can’t cry out in pain. Enough. Enough.
To those who wager on horseracing, we implore you to reconsider. And ultimately, you hold all the cards: no more bets, no more races; no more races, no more kills. And: no more abusing unformed bodies; no more extreme, relentless confinement; no more whipping; no more drugging; no more buying and selling and trading and dumping; no more auctions; no more kill-buyers; no more transport trucks; no more abattoirs. No more maiming and destroying. No more pain and suffering. No more.
In a landscape that abounds with other gambling options – casinos, lotteries, real sports involving autonomous human beings – has not the time at long last arrived to let these poor animals be? You, the bettor, have within the capacity for mercy. We ask only that you exercise it. Please, for the horses.