The Long Road Ahead for Horse Racing

The death of Eight Belles and the near-disastrous injuries sustained by Medina Spirit in this year’s Kentucky Derby have sparked a reckoning of horse racing’s ethics, morality, and integrity. While the sport has a lot to answer for, it also offers hope for significant change.

It’s a long road, but serious reforms are needed for horse racing to survive and thrive. The most basic necessity is an adequate wraparound aftercare solution for all horses who race or otherwise leave the track. In the absence of such a system, ex-racehorses hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline, where they face horrific deaths. Many are bailed out of this hell with the help of independent nonprofit rescue organizations who network, fundraise, and work tirelessly to save them.

Horse racing has seen a great deal of technological advancements in recent years, most notably in the area of race safety. Among other things, thermal imaging cameras can detect overheating post-race, MRI scanners, and X-rays can pick up injuries that aren’t apparent on a visual inspection, and 3D printing technology can produce casts, splints, and prosthetics for injured or ailing animals.

These advances have not been enough to address the fundamental flaws of the industry, however. As a for-profit business, horse racing has a legal relationship with its horses that is essentially that of an owner and a piece of property. Horses can be abused and even killed by their owners without fear of punishment or liability. The industry also relies on the exploitation of young, vulnerable horses.

To breed 1,000-pound thoroughbreds with massive torsos and spindly legs, and then throw them into intensive training at age 2 (the rough equivalent of a first-grader) is a recipe for breakdowns. Horses don’t reach full maturity — when their bones stop growing and fuse together to form their spinal columns and necks — until about age 6.

And yet, race purses are jacked up by taxpayer subsidies (in the form of casino cash) that offer incentives for horsemen to push horses past their limits. Horses are routinely injured and broken in the exorbitant stress of racing, and are subjected to drugs and illegal electric-shocking devices. After the race, they are typically shipped to a slaughterhouse in Mexico or Canada. The horrors that were inflicted on Eight Belles, Medina Spirit, Keepthename, Creative Plan, and Laoban cannot be allowed to repeat themselves. It’s time for racing to recognize that these horses and all other racing horses are not mere property, but sentient beings who deserve a good life. The lives of the horses that are the future of horse racing can only be saved if there is an adequate funding mechanism in place for the welfare of all racehorses. This must start with a recognition that horse racing is unequivocally unnatural. It is time for racing to stop pretending it’s just a game and start treating it as a real profession. This is what the horsemen and women of today need to demand.