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The Odds for Racehorses

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The Odds for Racehorses

By Michael Mountain, Zoe: It's Our Nature
March 2012

Zoe Michael Mountain race horse, horseracing

“Thoroughbred racing trades on bucolic imagery and glossy beauty,” writes The New York Times in an editorial, “Horses to the Slaughter” this morning.

The whole miserable, and largely criminal, industry rests on “the casual and continual mistreatment of vulnerable, overmedicated and ultimately disposable athletes … a culture of rampant cheating and feeble regulation, where injured and fragile horses are forced to run while drugged, to the great peril of both animals and jockeys.”

What keeps it all going is the drug abuse to which the horses are subjected: “the stimulants, steroids, pain medications, anti-inflammatories and other chemicals used to enhance performance and mask injuries.”

And now racetrack casinos have helped bring new money into the whole operation.

The Times’ comment follows its extensive investigative report, “Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys” last Sunday. The report began:

At 2:11 p.m., as two ambulances waited with motors running, 10 horses burst from the starting gate at Ruidoso Downs Race Track 6,900 feet up in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains.

Nineteen seconds later, under a brilliant blue sky, a national champion jockey named Jacky Martin lay sprawled in the furrowed dirt just past the finish line, paralyzed, his neck broken in three places. On the ground next to him, his frightened horse, leg broken and chest heaving, was minutes away from being euthanized on the track.

And the very next day, the same thing happened when a two-year-old horse broke his leg and threw his rider.

He was euthanized, and then dumped near an old toilet in a junkyard a short walk from where he had been sold at auction the previous year.

A survey of racing statistics from 29 states shows that more than 3,000 horses died during racing or training from 2009 to 2011. Every one of those horses showed drugs – often multiple drugs – in their bodies.

The Times report follows hard on the heels of the cancelation of the HBO drama series “Luck” after a third horse involved in the production died from injuries on the set.

The racing industry is scrambling to defend itself. Bill Shanklin, the editor of Horse Racing Business, argues that the Times is driven by sensationalism because of a “continual dramatic decline in its subscriptions, with its revenues plunging.” He continues:

The newspaper has become so desperate (and evidently resentful of its fate) that its editorial page has turned into an attack machine on people and groups it does not happen to agree with.

Shanklin barely comments on the substance of the report, except to say that modest reforms would be worthwhile and that “horse racing will never be a 100% safe sport, and never 100% free of thugs, which also happens to be true of other sports and living per se.”

The Washington Post’s horse racing columnist Andrew Breyer explains away the the horror by saying that The Times focused its investigation in New Mexico, and that the kind of racing they do in that state – quarter-horse racing – is different from the kind they do in other states like New York.

According to the Times’ own statistics, the seven U.S. tracks with the highest percentage of breakdowns or signs of injury were all ones that offer quarter-horse racing.

As if this makes horse racing deaths OK. At least U.S. Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico is ready to look at horse racing in the cold light of reality:

The findings uncovered in The New York Times investigation about horseracing in the United States, and New Mexico in particular, paint a very disturbing picture of the industry.

The sport of horseracing … has reached an alarming level of corruption and exploitation. The consequence of inconsistent state-level regulation is an epidemic of animal doping that has led to countless euthanizations of helpless horses and the injury and death of their riders.

… Now is the time to end the unscrupulous practices of those trainers and track veterinarians in horseracing who abuse these magnificent animals and endanger jockeys for gambling profits.”

In his column “Horse Racing: Cruelties We Condone and Cruelties We Condemn,” Hal Herzog asks: “Why are Americans are so outraged by some recreational uses of animals, but overwhelmingly approve of activities are even more cruel?” He cites horse racing as among the most cruel, and wonders whether “public support for ‘the sport of kings’ will substantially erode following the latest revelations about the perils of thoroughbred racing. My hunch is that it will not.”

Maybe not. But at least this wretched industry has been caught in the eye of exposure during the last few weeks. Perhaps the three horses who died on the set of HBO’s “Luck” will not have given their lives entirely in vain.