The Dark Side of Horse Racing

If you’ve ever watched a horse race, you know that there is something magical about these creatures and the way they move. Their huge strides and hypnotic smoothness are mesmerizing. Their huge eyes, their tiny noses, and the rhythm of their breath create an almost mystical scene. And when they’re winning, the fans in the grandstand cheer with glee.

There’s a dark side to horse racing, however, and it threatens the sport’s viability. In recent years, increased public awareness has led to more thorough investigations of the cruel training practices for young horses, drug use in races and workouts, and the fate of countless ex-racehorses who hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline.

But these efforts have not changed the core business model that keeps horse racing alive. As long as a tiny fraction of the public supports this sport, a few billion dollars in wagering will flow to its favored participants: track owners and corporate sponsors.

This business model has never put the best interests of the horses at its heart. The Jockey Club’s initial efforts to ban juicing were less about harming the animals and more about protecting the profits of bettors. California banned wagering on the sport in 1909 not because of concerns about equine welfare but to stamp out gangsters who controlled the industry.

There have been no major overhauls in the way racehorses are trained and treated since those times. Trainers still push horses beyond their limits, using cocktails of legal and illegal drugs to mask injuries and enhance performance. As a result, horses are routinely broken down and injured on the course. They often cannot recover from these serious setbacks and end up in the slaughter pipeline.

Despite these setbacks, many improvements have been made. Some are driven by new legislation, others by growing public discontent with the sport’s equine welfare record. Still others are the result of the tireless work of independent nonprofit rescue groups that network, fundraise and organize to save the horses who could otherwise be sent to slaughter.

A few of these horses are able to be “bailed out” by the nonprofits and given a short window before they are shipped overseas for slaughter. The remainder, if they can’t be saved, are destined to live out their lives as pastured livestock or, in some cases, face horrific ends in Mexican or Canadian slaughterhouses.