The Hidden Cruelty of Horseracing:

A Closer Look at Saratoga Race Course

It’s summertime. The weather is gorgeous, and people are looking for outdoor things to do. In the Capital Region, a traditional centerpiece of summer fun for so many has been the world-renowned Saratoga Race Course – named one of the “world’s greatest sporting venues in the nation” by Sport’s Illustrated. For over 150 years, fans of thoroughbreds have come to Saratoga to spend a lazy August afternoon basking in the sun, enjoying and celebrating the majesty of these beautiful horses in full stride. But before you commit to a date at the track, please consider the following facts the horseracing industry would prefer to be kept hidden in the backstretch.

Beyond the Glamour
While the traditions surrounding horseracing stretch back into antiquity, the modern business of raising thoroughbreds to race professionally has changed a great deal. It’s now a multi-billion dollar industry that profits from a fast turn-around volume from breeding to retirement in just a few short years. This profit-driven model favors human interests first and the interests of the horses last. This business approach to racing has led to very troubling outcomes for the horses we all love.

Born to Run
Horses are social animals, thriving in herds that look out for and protect their young. Thoroughbreds who are bred to race are often separated from their mothers as mere babies, much younger than if they were raised in a healthy social herd. Foals destined for racing are sold and separated from their mothers, usually by the tender age of one. The first step to training a racehorse is to break them, a process that makes them submissive and able to be ridden. Alone and separated from their mothers, their brief lives of servitude begin.

The Daily Grind of Racing
Horses do not reach full musculoskeletal maturity until around the age of six. Most horses bred to race only compete for two or three years. This means their bones are not done growing and the growth plates are still fusing for all of the years that most horses typically race. This has catastrophic consequences for these young animals. Racehorses are typically thrust into intensive training at 18 months and raced by age two – the rough equivalent of a first-grader. It is common to see 4-, 3-, even 2-year-old horses dying with chronic conditions like osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease – clear evidence of the toll that comes from the incessant pounding these unformed bodies are forced to absorb.

Stable Environments
Perhaps you envision pampered thoroughbreds living in million-dollar stables getting the best care that money can buy. However, a typical horse’s stall is tiny, only 12×12, and horses are typically locked in alone for over 23 hours a day. While the racing industry cultivates an image that horses are “born to run, love to run,” the reality is a life of extreme confinement and isolation for these naturally social, herd animals. Prominent equine veterinarian Dr. Kraig Kulikowski likens this cruelty to keeping a child locked in a 4×4 closet for over 23 hours a day. The psychological harm of this isolation is evident in the behaviors commonly seen in confined racehorses – cribbing, wind-sucking, bobbing, weaving, digging, kicking, even self-mutilation.

Painful Reminders
Every thoroughbred horse that is bred to race will be trained as though they are a future champion. The training is intense and rigorous. To accomplish great speeds, trainers – by design – try to push horses past their current limits. This often requires the use of force, pain, and intimidation. Pushing, shoving, pulling, yanking, slapping, and yelling are common ways to handle a young horse. Trainers also rely on mechanical tools such as nose chains, lip chains, tongue ties, eye blinders, mouth “bits” – which, says Dr. Robert Cook, an expert on equine physiology, make the horses feel like they’re suffocating when being forced to run at racing speeds – and, of course, whips.

It’s in Their Blood
With the astonishing cost of a typical thoroughbred horse, you would expect that the health of each horse would be of paramount importance. While true in theory, in fact the intense pressure to produce a winning racehorse means that many horses are given potentially harmful substances in that pursuit. Racehorses are injected, legally and otherwise, to enhance performance, to mask an injury, and to numb pain. These practices often lead to grave outcomes. The horsemen’s credo is really quite simple: keep ’em on the track, keep ’em earning, by whatever means necessary.

Horses are intelligent, gentle creatures, but they have no rights under current law. Racehorses are considered chattel – pieces of property to be bought, sold, traded, and dumped whenever their owners decide. The average racehorse will change hands multiple times over the course of his brief career, adding anxiety and stress to an already stressful existence. This near-constant shuffling among trainers, grooms, vets, barns, tracks, and states is a primary reason why some 90% of active racehorses suffer from chronic ulcers. Owners have no obligation to act in the best interests of the animals. This allows owners to make life or death decisions based on their bottom line and ignore what is best for the horses. To make matters worse, horses are not even afforded the protections of animal-cruelty statutes, meaning an owner or trainer can run his horse into the ground – yes, even to death – with virtual impunity.

Treating racehorses like a disposable commodity has a direct cost in increasing horse mortality at racetracks around the country. Since 2009, 212 horses have lost their lives at Saratoga Race Course – that’s an average of 15 per summer. For all NYS tracks during this period, the death toll stands at almost 1,800. Nationally, Horseracing Wrongs has documented – with names, dates, locations,
details – close to 10,000 deaths since 2014. Here are some of the ways racehorses die: cardiovascular collapse, pulmonary hemorrhage, blunt-force head trauma, broken necks, severed spines, ruptured ligaments, and shattered legs. We estimate that over 2,000 beautiful horses die in the U.S. each year. But even one is too many.

Reaching the Finish Line
If a racehorse survives his “career,” then retirement may not be something to look forward to. Two independent studies (as well as industry admissions) reveal that the end for most racehorses comes at the abattoir, where they are slaughtered for their meat. One final profit for the owners.

Plan Accordingly
Watching a horse run at full stride with the wind flying in his hair is an exciting thing to see. But the joy of watching these beautiful animals is tainted by the grim, hidden reality. Far from being the glamorous sport it purports to be, modern horseracing, at its core, is cruel exploitation.

As you make your entertainment plans for the summer, please choose compassion: say no to horseracing; say no to Saratoga Race Course.

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