Horse races ipar4d have evolved from primitive contests of speed and stamina into a massive spectacle, but their essential feature has not: The horse that finishes first wins. In the early decades of this century, a growing awareness of the dark side of racing accelerated improvements in animal welfare. The industry has lost many of its old fans, but is still a major public-entertainment business.
Behind the rose-colored facade of horse racing is a world of injuries, drug abuse and gruesome breakdowns. While spectators show off their fancy outfits and sip mint juleps, horses race for their lives, pushed to the limits of endurance and often subjected to cocktails of legal and illegal drugs intended to mask injuries, hide drug abuse and artificially enhance performance. Many of them bleed from their lungs, a condition called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage.
In this grim landscape, the sport’s legions of apologists often blow off the concerns of animal rights activists and equine welfare experts. The Times hitchhikes to PETA, a group that racing insiders love to hate. But it is a mistake to confuse hostility toward PETA with dismissal of its work. Virtually no one outside of racing cares how the organization gets its undercover video; they care only about what is in it.
As for the video, it reveals the shocking treatment of world-class horses at two of America’s most prestigious tracks, Churchill Downs in Kentucky and Saratoga in upstate New York. The story focuses on the trainers Steve Asmussen and Scott Blasi, who have been accused of mistreating horses and have received numerous violations from state racing regulators. The video has been an embarrassment for the two men, but it also highlights the utter failure of the horse-racing industry to address its biggest challenges.
A racing aficionado who has long sought reform once described the experience of a racetrack as “hell for horses.” It is a hell that is only occasionally interrupted by the work of independent, nonprofit rescue groups and individuals who network, fundraise and campaign tirelessly to save ex-racehorses from their miserable fates.
Horseracing Wrongs, a website run by activist Patrick Battuello, argues that “the idea of horse racing as a sport is a Big Lie.” Its athletes are drugged and whipped, trained and raced too young and pushed to their limit and beyond. They are social animals that spend their work lives confined to a stall and, in the case of those not killed, many die from overuse of prohibited substances and excessive levels of permitted ones.
The most profound way that the industry could make things better for its horses would be to establish an adequately funded wraparound aftercare solution for them all, not just those with a chance of rescue. But until that happens, it is not clear how racing will turn the tide of declining interest and shrinking revenue from a growing constituency of animal rights activists and other concerned citizens. It is time for the sport to begin listening.