The idea behind a horse race has changed little over the centuries. Even as it evolved from a primitive contest of speed and stamina between two horses to a sport involving huge fields, electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money, its essential feature remains the same: The first horse whose nose crosses the finish line is declared the winner.
While some people criticize the sport for its cruelty, doping, and overbreeding, others feel that it is a worthy challenge for horses and represents the pinnacle of achievement for these magnificent animals. In recent years, however, horse racing has been dragged into the 21st century and forced to address issues that have damaged its reputation.
As an industry, it has made some progress in improving horse welfare while preserving many of its traditions. It now employs thermal imaging cameras to prevent horses from overheating, MRI scanners and X-rays to detect health problems before they become serious, and 3D printing to produce casts, splints, and prosthetics for injured or ailing horses. These advances are the result of increased awareness of the dark side of the racing business and pressure from groups like PETA, which has exposed abusive training practices for young horses, drug use by trainers, and the transport of American racehorses to foreign slaughterhouses.
But while these technological advances help, they cannot undo the fact that the vast majority of horse races are deadly to the animals who take part in them. The deaths of Eight Belles, the star of 2008’s Kentucky Derby, and Medina Spirit — as well as the thousands of other horses who die due to the exorbitant physical stress of racing — have sparked a much-needed reckoning of the sport’s ethics.
It’s difficult to know how many horses die in races due to the long-running lack of racing industry regulation, record keeping, and transparency. But what is clear is that there are essentially three types of people in the business: those crooks who dangerously drug their horses; those who labor under the illusion that horse racing is broadly fair and honest; and the masses of people in the middle, not quite naive but far from honorable, who know that the industry is more crooked than it ought to be.
Sadly, most of those in the middle have chosen to bluster or dodge rather than listen to the concerns raised by animal rights activists and the public. They have allowed themselves to get tangled in the hostility that has always accompanied this sport and conflate that hatred with their dismissal of PETA’s work on behalf of racing’s horses. That is a mistake. The horse racing industry needs to rethink its business model and make the well-being of the horses who are its lifeblood the top priority. Then, perhaps, it will be able to restore the prestige that was stolen from Eight Belles, Medina Spirit, Keepthename, Creative Plan, and the thousands of other racehorses before them.