This month’s Kentucky Derby hit the news for the disqualification of the winning horse. Footage showed apparent foul-play on the track, and winner Maximum Security was deemed to have impeded the other horses. Twitter immediately erupted with outrage at the decision, with even the president blaming it on modern “political correctness.” But this debate over the result has obscured the real scandal bubbling below the surface of American racing.
Every week, an average of 10 horses die on American racetracks. Some die through over-exhaustion, masked by the effect of performance enhancing drugs, while many others sustain injuries and are shot when the race is over. Euthanasia isn’t much of a spectator sport, so usually this is done away from the eyes of the crowds, and consequently fails to generate the attention it deserves.
Despite most fatalities going largely unreported, scandal recently struck at the Santa Anita racetrack in California. There, a shocking spate of 22 horse deaths in only 3 months hit the headlines and caused the track to close temporarily. Poor track conditions, overly doped-up horses, and the over-zealous usage of whips were cited as factors contributing to the extreme fatality rate. But Santa Anita is far from an isolated case. In 2018, nearly 500 horses in the United States died either on the track or from race-related injuries. With 2.7 deaths per 1,000 race starts, Kentucky’s Churchill Downs topped the charts for most dangerous course for anyone unlucky enough to possess four legs and a tail.
Horse racing enthusiasts have argued that the sport could be “cleaned up” if drugs were better regulated and tracks kept in better condition. But the sport is hardly safer in places like the UK where doping is banned. Clearly the problem here is intrinsic to a sport which pushes horses to their physical limits and beyond.
Even for the surviving horses, the tale is not pleasant. When a horse retires from the sport, it is not to a life of long summer days frolicking in a grassy meadow. Instead, horses are routinely shipped to abattoirs where they are slaughtered and their meat sold. But this is not only the fate of our poor equine senior citizens. Globally, more than 100,000 horses are bred each year in the hope of producing a quality racing “product,” but very few actually make the commercial grade. Many of these healthy young horses are similarly labeled as “non-financially viable output” and slaughtered.
What is worse is that this output is not declining, but rather is on the rise. Horse stocks are a big market for financial speculators who buy and trade horses as commodities to make big returns. The stallions used to father potential racing foals are kept in isolation, sometimes for up to 20 years, while the mares are kept as baby-making machines, trapped in a constant cycle of pregnancy and birth. But because of the massive output of these artificial conceptions, the proportion of foals “lucky” enough to make it and risk their necks hurtling down unsafe tracks is actually decreasing.
The popularity of equine racing seems even more bizarre if we consider how other animal sports have been consigned to the pages of history. Entertainments such as bear-baiting and dog-fighting were once highly popular leisure pursuits, but a society that has greater compassion for animals has now acknowledged they are barbaric. Similarly, the use of animals in circuses has been banned in many countries around the world, and a bill to do the same across America was introduced to Congress in 2017. Around the world, people are ceasing to tolerate the torment and injury of animals purely for entertainment.
One might argue that unlike historic baiting practices, death is an unfortunate side effect, and not the primary motive of horse-racing. But when is enough enough? We can surely no longer argue that death is the surprise gatecrasher to an otherwise happy animal-loving party. Rather, it is a specter, always lurking on the sidelines, waiting for its inevitable next victim. Unlike the jockeys who are injured in the races, the horses did not sign up to risk their lives. In fact, they did not sign up to run at all. A common retort from the racing community is that a horse will not do anything it does not wish to, but this raises the question: Why then the whip?
So why is horse racing considered so different? The problem here may lie with the audience that it aims to attract. While bear-baiting, cockfighting, and dog fights were the entertainment of the working classes. The glitzy veneer applied to racing helps it to divert its would-be critics. Working class animal sports have been easy to frown upon, as they take place in low quality venues, often muddy pits selling cheap booze to raucous crowds of sweaty men. By contrast, horse racing is the domain of the wealthy elite. It is more than a sport; it is a glamorous social event. This spectacle of death is treated as a highlight of the upper (and aspiring middle) class social calendar. Men arrive in expensive suits, and women in thousand-dollar fashion statements, and watch it unfold as they sip on their Dom Pérignon. The Kentucky Derby operates as a veritable fashion catwalk, taking ostentation to such a level that there is even a competition for the best headwear (the winners from 2018 including a hat adorned with practically an entire large peacock). When a horse is pushed beyond its capacity and breaks its leg, a tent is erected around the poor animal so the spectators need not see its messy end.
Nonetheless, some of horse racing’s uncomfortable truths are making their way to the surface. For instance, some argue that the sport should make changes and adapt in order to ensure its survival. But what we should really be asking is whether there is room in an ethical society for a sport like this at all. Preventing deaths during racing is not enough when an industrialized breeding program means that thousands die before even making the grade, or are euthanized when their racing days are over. Barbarism is no accident; it is integral to the “sport.” As a result, there should be only one conclusion: There is no place in the 21st century for the systematic abuse of animals. It is time we consigned horse racing to the history books.
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