The Dark Side of a Horse Race

horse race

A horse race is a spectacle that draws thousands of people to the track to sip mint juleps, admire fancy outfits, and watch horses run for their lives. But behind the gilded facade lies a dark and disturbing world of injuries, drug abuse, and gruesome breakdowns. In the earliest days of organized racing, horses died frequently, but modern drugs and an increasingly vigilant officialdom have made it much safer. Even so, crooked trainers still sabotage the industry and the sport is often corrupt.

On a morning in early May 2022, a horse named Mongolian Groom trotted out of the walking ring before his race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, and toward the starting gate. As he did so, spectators looked at his coat to see whether it was bright and rippling. If so, the animal was ready to run; if not, it might be frightened or angry.

The horse entered the starting gate and jumped clear of it. War of Will, a favorite to win that year’s Preakness Stakes, was ahead of him. The rest of the eleven horses were packed together in a long, narrow group, crowded tight enough to be uncomfortable for the horses and their riders. The surface was dirt, a deep and muddy course that made the runners bounce as they went over it. The rider of a good horse, called a “good trip,” could make the difference between winning and losing.

A jockey rides a horse by holding onto its neck with a strap and pushing it forward in a style called hand riding. A jockey can use the whip to urge the horse on when he feels that it is not going fast enough. He can also give the horse a light tap with the pommel to get it to move its rear end faster. The rider can also rub the horse’s belly with his hands, which makes the animal feel less agitated.

Whenever a horse races, its lower legs take a terrible beating. That is because the horses are trained to be quick, which requires a lot of running, and because horses cannot stop when they tire, as humans can. The lower legs of a racing horse, especially those on an oval track, are prone to injury, straining ligaments, tendons, and joints.

In the earliest days of organized racing, most horses died of injuries. But by the 1920s, a more scientific approach to breeding and training had taken hold. Powerful painkillers designed for humans and anti-inflammatories became available, and racing officials had trouble keeping up with the many new medications that were now used to enhance performance. Blood doping, growth hormones, antipsychotics, and other potent drugs were all common.

In 2020 Congress decided that it was no longer willing to allow animals to die in the name of entertainment, and began enforcing safety standards for horse racing. The new rules reduced the death rate by a significant margin. But the industry is still a crooked place, and its leaders have a lot of explaining to do.

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