The Deaths of Horse Race Horses

The eleven horses lined up for the start of the race, drenched in pinkish light that made their coats shimmer. War of Will, last year’s Preakness winner, took the early lead with Mongolian Groom and McKinzie trailing close behind.

Despite the fact that Eight Belles was just three years old when she died in 2008 from the exorbitant stress of racing, this tragic event was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how many horses die each and every year as a result of their participation in horse races. The number is in the thousands, but without industry regulation, record keeping and willingness to be open with the public about what goes on at the tracks, it will likely never be known.

Racing aficionados often blow off the concerns of animal rights activists and members of the public at large, but there has been no reversal in the trend of horses dying from the sport that they love. The problems with equine welfare are systemic and baked into the business model of racing, which depends on pushing horses to their limits and relying on cocktails of legal and illegal drugs that mask injuries and give them an edge.

The first documented organized horse races can be traced to the British occupation of New York City in 1664, when Colonel Richard Nicolls laid out a course on Long Island and offered a silver cup to the best Thoroughbreds. Up until the Civil War, stamina was the hallmark of excellence and speed became the goal only afterward.

In the 19th century, a new breed of steed was developed to be fast and lean. As the era of the industrialization of America and Europe progressed, horse races were moved to bigger arenas and stakes races were introduced. The modern American thoroughbred was developed in the 1800s and 1900s, and it is from these early champions that the sport today draws its strength and popularity.

During this time, there has also been a growing awareness of the dark side of the horse racing industry, including abusive training practices for young horses, the use of illegal drugs to enhance performance and the transport of countless American horses to foreign slaughterhouses. Increasing scrutiny of the industry has fueled improvements and promises to continue pressuring it to do more to protect the welfare of its horses.

The most important thing that the industry can do now is address its lack of a fully funded, industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for all retired racing horses. Otherwise, like Eight Belles, they will hemorrhage into the pipeline to be sent to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico where they face a horrific end. The only good news is that the handful of independent, nonprofit rescues and individual people who network, fundraise and work tirelessly to save them are making significant headway. But it’s not enough. The rest of the country must wake up and demand more from a sport that is called “The Sport of Kings.” The animals deserve it.