Horse racing is one of the oldest sports in history and has been practiced in civilizations around the world for thousands of years. Its popularity is fueled by the thrill of betting on and watching horses compete in races that often involve excruciating physical stress, injuries, and sometimes death. While the sport still has many enduring traditions, it has also been impacted by technological advancements and growing awareness of its dark side.
As a result, the industry is facing declining fan interest, poor demographics, and dwindling race days and entries. The waning popularity of the sport has been partially blamed on the fact that it has failed to embrace television as a marketing vehicle and is competing with major professional and collegiate team sports for spectators’ attention.
Another criticism has been that horse racing is a cruel and abusive activity for animals. In recent years, a number of groups have investigated abuses within the horse racing industry including animal rights organization PETA, which recently released seven hours of video footage that it alleges shows horse trainers abusing young racehorses by drugging them and forcing them to run at dangerously high speeds.
The video features the treatment of world-class Thoroughbred racehorses by trainers Steve Asmussen and Scott Blasi at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, and Saratoga in upstate New York. Both trainers have won multiple Triple Crown races (the Belmont Stakes, Preakness Stakes, and Kentucky Derby), but they have also both been accused of using illegal drugs on their horses, forcing them to run with excessive weight, and putting them at risk of injury and death.
The footage allegedly also shows that the trainers give their horses daily drugs whether they need them or not to help them pass visual inspections, make it to the track, and perform at higher levels. In addition, the horses are forced to race on dirt and concrete at very fast speeds, which can cause them to become injured or even die.
There is no doubt that horse racing is a brutal and unnatural sport for animals. However, the sport can make important changes that would improve the lives of its horses. It could start by implementing an adequately funded industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for all racehorses leaving the track. This would allow them to have a second chance at life after racing, instead of being sent to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada where they will be subjected to horrendous conditions and charged arbitrary, wildly outrageous ransoms for their freedom.
The deaths of Eight Belles and Medina Spirit, and the countless other racehorses that have succumbed to the exorbitant physical stress of the sport, should serve as a wake-up call. If not, the sport will be forced to evolve in a culture and society that recognizes that animals are equals and deserve the right to life with dignity, including the right to a safe, comfortable retirement. If that doesn’t happen soon, the for-profit industry will face an existential threat.