Horse Racing Fact Sheet
They weigh at least 1,000 pounds, they have legs
supported by ankles the size of a human's, and they're forced to run over 30
miles per hour around a dirt track carrying a person on their back.(1)
Racehorses are victims of a multibillion-dollar
industry rife with drug abuse, injuries, race fixing, and for many horses,
their career ends in a slaughterhouse. A New York Daily News reporter
remarked, "The thoroughbred race horse is a genetic mistake. It runs too
fast, its frame is too large, and its legs are far too small. As long as
mankind demands that it run at high speeds under stressful conditions,
horses will die at racetracks."(2)
The Starting Gate
Racehorses can cost millions of dollars and are often
purchased by syndicates, which may be composed of thousands of members.(3,4)
There are also trainers, handlers, veterinarians, and jockeys involved, so a
horse is rarely able to develop any kind of bond with one person or other
horses. They travel from country to country, state to state, racetrack to
racetrack, so few horses are able to call one place "home." Most do not end
up in the well-publicized races, but instead are trucked, shipped, or flown
to the thousands of other races that take place all over the country every
Racing to the Grave
Horses begin training or are already racing when their
skeletal system is still growing and unprepared to handle the pressures of
running on a hard track at high speeds.(5) Improved medical treatment and
technological advancements have done little to remedy the plight of the
racehorse. One study on injuries at racetracks concluded that one horse in
every 22 races suffered an injury that prevented him or her from finishing a
race, while another estimates that 800 thoroughbreds die a year in North
America because of injuries.(6)
Strained tendons or hairline fractures can be tough for
veterinarians to diagnose and the damage may go from minor to irrevocable at
the next race or workout. Horses do not handle surgery well, as they tend to
be disoriented when coming out of anesthesia and may fight casts or slings,
possibly causing further injury. Many are euthanized in order to save the
owners further veterinary fees and other expenses on a horse who can't race
again. Given the huge investment in a horse, reported one Kentucky paper,
"simply sending one to pasture, injured or not, is not an option all owners
are willing to consider."(7)
Care for a single racehorse can cost as much as $50,000
per year.(8) Magic Man stepped into an uneven section of a track and broke
both front legs during a race at Saratoga Race Course; his owner had bought
him for $900,000 dollars, yet the horse hadn't earned any money yet and,
unproven on the track, wasn't worth much as a stud, so he was euthanized.(9)
Trainers may take calculated risks by running a horse
they know is injured. War Emblem, the racehorse who won the first two legs
of the Triple Crown in 2001, suffered from bone chips in one ankle and both
knees. In spite of veterinary recommendations for surgery, which would have
taken away from training and racing time, trainer Bob
Baffert said, "Let the chips fall where they may," and continued to race the
horse.(10) War Emblem lost the Belmont Stakes, no longer races, has changed
hands twice, and has been diagnosed with "unwillingness to cover mares" at a
breeding barn in Japan.(11)
Bone chips, which occur in up to 50 percent of
racehorses by some veterinary estimates, are "like taking two pieces of
rock, rubbing them together and seeing pieces of sand rubbing off," explains
one veterinary orthopedic surgeon.(12) The same trainer continued to race a
3-year-old thoroughbred after knee surgery; the horse had to be euthanized
after breaking his shoulder during a workout.(13)
Drugs and Deception
"Finding an American racehorse trained on the
traditional hay, oats, and water probably would be impossible," commented
one racing reporter.(14) Many racehorses are turned into junkies by their
trainers and sometimes by veterinarians, who provide drugs to keep horses on
the track when they shouldn't be racing.
Which drugs are legal and which are not varies from
state to state, with Kentucky holding the reputation as most lenient.(15)
According to The Washington Post, every horse at the 2003 Kentucky Derby was
given a shot of Lasix (which controls bleeding in the lungs), and most were
probably given phenylbutazone (an anti-inflammatory).(16)
Those drugs, although legal, can also mask pain or make
a horse run faster. Labs cannot detect all of the illegal drugs out there,
of which there "could be thousands," says the executive director of the
Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.(17)
Morphine, which can keep a horse from feeling any pain
from an injury, was suspected in the case of Be My Royal, who won a race
limping.(18) Baffert has also been suspended for using morphine on a
horse.(19) One trainer was suspended for using an Ecstasy-type drug on five
horses, and another has been kicked off of racetracks for using clenbuterol
and, in one case, for having the leg of a euthanized horse cut off "for
A New York veterinarian and a trainer faced felony
charges when the body of a missing racehorse turned up at a farm and
authorities determined her death had been caused by the injection of a
"There are trainers pumping horses full of illegal
drugs every day," says a former Churchill Downs public relations director,
"With so much money on the line, people will do anything to make their
horses run faster."(23)
Even the Winners Lose
Few racehorses are retired to pastures for pampering
and visits from caring individuals or are glamorized in movies.
An insurance scandal cost the life of Alydar, who came
in second in all three races of the 1978 Triple Crown and fathered many fast
horses. After being retired to stud at a Kentucky farm, he was originally
believed to have shattered his leg by kicking a stall door and was
euthanized when he wasn't able to maintain a splint.(24) Ten years later, an
FBI investigation revealed that his leg was broken deliberately with a rope
tied to a pickup truck.(25)
The disappearance and suspected murder of candy heir
Helen Voorhees Brach was traced to the Chicago horse "mafia," whose leader
was known for burning barns and killing horses for insurance money.(26)
Ferdinand, a Derby winner and Horse of the Year in
1987, was retired to Claiborne Farms, then changed hands at least twice
before being "disposed of" in Japan; a reporter covering the story
concluded, "No one can say for sure when and where Ferdinand met his end,
but it would seem clear he met it in a slaughterhouse."(27)
Exceller, a million-dollar racehorse who was inducted
into the National Racing Museum's Hall of Fame, was killed at a Swedish
The United States has a multimillion-dollar horsemeat
export business and slaughters tens of thousands of horses every year.(29)
One Colorado State University study found that of 1,348 horses sent to
slaughter, 58 were known to be former racehorses.(30)
There are only two equine slaughterhouses left in the
U.S., both in Texas, so most horses who come from other states have to
endure days of transport in cramped trailers.(31) Usually, there is no
access to water or food, and injuries are common: A University of
California, Davis, study of
306 horses destined for slaughter found that 60 of them
sustained injuries during transport.(32) Some must travel in double-decker
trailers designed for cattle or sheep; these vehicles are are not tall
enough for horses.
The United States Department of Agriculture has banned
the use of these trailers for horse transport as of 2006.
Horses are subject to the same method of slaughter as
cattle, but since horses are generally not used to being herded, they tend
to thrash about to avoid the pneumatic gun that should render them
unconscious before their throat is cut. (34)
What You Can Do
Tracks are trying to revive interest in horseracing by
introducing slot machines at dog and horse tracks; in Arizona, though,
voters recently rejected a proposition to allow such an expansion of
gambling at tracks.(35) To quote comedian Bill Maher, "Horses were not meant
to serve as gambling icons."(36)
Help phase out this exploitative "sport": Refuse to
patronize existing tracks, work to reform and enforce racing regulations,
lobby against the construction of new tracks, and educate your friends and
family about the tragic lives of racehorses. If you have the money, acreage,
and time, consider adopting a rescued racehorse from an organization that
rehabilitates them, such as Redwings Horse Sanctuary in California and the
Equine Rescue League.
1)Ted Miller, "Six Recent Horse Deaths at Emerald Downs Spark
Concern," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 8 May 2001.
2)Bill Finley, "Sadly, No Way to Stop Deaths," New York Daily News, 10
3)Sherry Ross, "Fans Are Buying In," Daily News, 1 Jun. 2003.
4)"The Odds Are You'll Lose: Owning a Racehorse," Financial Times, 1
5)Glenn Robertson Smith, "Why Racehorses Are Cracking Up," The Age
(Australia), 15 Nov. 2002.
7)Tim Reynolds, "Technology Can't Prevent Horse Injuries," The
Lexington Herald-Leader, 30 Aug. 2001.
8)Andrew Beyer, "A Beyer's Guide for Racehorses," The Washington Post,
3 Jun. 2003.
10)Maryjean Wall, "A Triple Crown. Bone Chips Haven't Hurt War Emblem.
Ailment Afflicts Many a Racehorse," The Lexington Herald- Leader, 2 Jun.
11) "War Emblem Taken Over by Insurance Firms," Associated Press, 5
13)"Baffert-Trained Del Mar Futurity Winner Is Euthanized," Associated
Press, 20 Feb. 2003.
14)John Scheinman, "Horses, Drugs Are Racing's Daily Double; No
Uniform Policy in Industry," The Washington Post, 27 Apr. 2003.
15)Janet Patton, "HBPA Proposes Uniform Policy on Drugs in Racing;
Horsemen's Group Targets Maze of State Rules," The Lexington Herald- Leader,
17 Oct. 2001.
18)Peat Bee, "Cut the Poppycock and Treat Drugs With Horse Sense," The
Guardian, 13 Jan. 2003.
19)"Baffert Suspended for 60 Days," CNN Sports Illustrated, 17 Jun.
20)Alex Straus, "Dark Horses," Maxim, May 2002.
21)Tom Keyser, "Gill Is Still Permitted to Stable, Race Horses at
Pimlico, Laurel," The Baltimore Sun, 6 Apr. 2003.
22)"Trainer, Vet Charged in Trotter's Death," Associated Press, 22
24)Skip Hollandsworth, "The Killing of Alydar," Texas Monthly, Jun.
26)"The Candy Lady," Dateline NBC, narr. Dennis Murphy, NBC, 21 Feb.
27)Barbara Bayer, "1986 Kentucky Derby Winner Ferdinand Believed to
Have Been Slaughtered in Japan," The Blood-Horse Magazine, 26 Jul. 2003.
28)Allen G. Breed, "And What of the Spent Racehorse?" Associated
Press, 25 Nov. 1999.
29)Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "Horsemeat
Exports-Value," 2001 and "Horsemeat Slaughtered/Prod Animals (Head)," 2002.
30)K. McGee et al., "Characterizations of Horses at Auctions and in
Slaughter Plants," Colorado State University Department of Animal Sciences,
31)Kris Axtman, "Horse-Meat Sales Stir Texas Controversy," Christian
Science Monitor, 28 Apr. 2003.
32)C.L. Stull, "Responses of Horses to Trailer Design, Duration, and
Floor Area During Commercial Transportation to Slaughter," Journal of Animal
Science 77 (1999): 2925-2933.
33)United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health
Inspection Service, "Take Care of Our Horses. Commercial Transportation of
Equines to Slaughter," Jan. 2002: 2.
35)"Gambling Measure Likely to Deepen Racing Woes," Associated Press,
18 Nov. 2002.
36) Bill Maher, interview, Larry King Live, CNN, 28 Aug. 2003.
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