Horse racing is considered by many to be a harmless sport in which the animals willingly display their speed, skill and agility. The truth is that these animals suffer and die for human profit and entertainment.
The Sport of Cruelty
Also known as the Sport of Kings, horse racing is a multibillion-dollar industry rife with cruelty, drug abuse, injuries to both the riders and horses, and many horses end up at the slaughterhouse when they are no longer profitable.
Stallions are over-worked and are kept isolated from other horses for years while females are subjected to an endless cycle of pregnancy that often involves the use of drugs and other artificial interventions.
According to the New York Daily News, “The thoroughbred race horse is a genetic mistake. It runs too fast, its frame is too large, and its legs are far too small. As long as mankind demands that it run at high speeds under stressful conditions, horses will die at racetracks.”
Racing to Death
While injuries and deaths are pitched by the media as unexpected accidents, as in the case of Barbaro, the undefeated Kentucky Derby champion who was euthanized after a series of surgical procedures to repair his shattered ankle, the reality is that hundreds of other horses continue to die on the tracks while thousands of others are sold for slaughter – their meat to be used in cat food or sold to European countries for human consumption.
Horses begin training or are already racing at an early age and when their skeletal systems are still growing. This makes them physically unprepared to handle the pressures of running on a hard track at high speeds. According to one study on racetrack injuries, one horse in every 22 races suffered an injury that prevented the animal from finishing the race. Another study found that approximately 800 thoroughbreds die in North America each year because of racetrack injuries.
According to Dr. David Nunamaker, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania and the chairman of clinical studies at New Bolton Center, fatal muscle and bone injuries occur 1.5 times per 1,000 starts, which means that approximately 704 horses died while racing in the United States and Canada in 2005 - almost 2 racehorse fatalities every day.
Some 30% of these fatalities occur during, or immediately after a race, and are caused by a broken leg, back, neck or pelvis, spinal injuries, heart attack or burst blood vessels.
Serious racing-related illnesses are now endemic with approximately 82% of flat race horses older than three years of age suffering from bleeding lungs (exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage). Gastric ulcers are present in no fewer than 93% of horses in training, where the condition gets progressively worse. When horses are retired, the condition improves.
Even with improved medical treatments and technological advancements, hairline fractures and strained tendons are difficult for veterinarians to diagnose and the damage may go from minor to irreversible at the next race or workout.
Horses do not do well in surgery and further injury may occur from the disorienting effects of the anesthesia or from fighting the casts or slings. An animals’ chances of recovery is further compounded by the fact that horses need to stand while recovering whereas humans can heal with bed rest or by using crutches.
“We're upset when it happens, but it's just part of the racing game." - General Manager of Virginia’s Colonial Downs, commenting on the deaths of five horses in eight days
Sometimes the animal’s survival is simply a matter of economics. Euthanasia is cheaper than veterinary fees and other expenses on a horse that can no longer race and care for a single racehorse can cost as much as $50,000 a year.
While the owners of Barbaro spared no expense for his medical needs, their display of compassion is the exception, not the rule. Magic Man was a horse who stepped into an uneven section of track and broke both front legs during a race at the Saratoga Race Course. His owner paid $900,000 for him but since the horse hadn’t earned any money and wasn’t worth much as a stud, the owner had Magic Man euthanized.
Addicted to Drugs
Many racehorses become addicted to drugs when their trainers and even veterinarians give them drugs to keep them on the track when they shouldn’t be racing. The New York Sun reported in May 2006 that “to keep the horses going,” they are given Lasix (which controls bleeding in the lungs), phenylbutazone (an anti-inflammatory), and cortiscosteroids (for pain and inflammation). Those drugs, although legal, can also mask pain or make a horse run faster.Morphine, which can keep a horse from feeling any pain from an injury, was suspected in the case of Be My Royal, who won a race while limping. In 2002 a trainer was suspended for using an Ecstasy-type drug in five horses while another was kicked off the racetracks for using clenbuterol. The previous year a New York veterinarian and a trainer faced felony charges when the body of a missing racehorse turned up at a farm and authorities determined that her death had been caused by the injection of a “performance-enhancing drug.”
According to a former Churchill Downs public relations director, “There are trainers pumping horses full of illegal drugs every day. With so much money on the line, people will do anything to make their horses run faster.”
From Racetrack to Slaughterhouse
Few racehorses are retired to pastures for pampering and visits from caring individuals. Ferdinand, a Derby winner and Horse of the Year in 1987, was retired to a farm and then changed hands at least twice before being “disposed of” in Japan.
A reporter covering the story in 2003 concluded, “No one can say for sure when and where Ferdinand met his end, but it would seem clear he met it in a slaughterhouse.”
Exceller, a million-dollar racehorse who was inducted into the National Racing Museum’s Hall of Fame, was also reportedly killed at a Swedish slaughterhouse. A 2001 Colorado State University study found that of 1,348 horses sent to slaughter, 58 were known to be former racehorses.
Another cruel yet acceptable practice is hitting racehorses with whips, apparently to make the horses run faster. An investigation by Animal Aid in the U.K. found that racehorses in a state of total exhaustion and out of contention were often beaten. The whip was used on the neck and shoulders, as well as on the hindquarters. According to the report, horses were observed being whipped 20, or even 30 or more times, during a race.
Whipping horses can be extremely painful and stressful for the animals, and in many cases reduces their chances of winning the race. One particular study, conducted between October and November 2003, found that 40 out of the 161 races surveyed(around 25%) had been won by horses that had not been whipped.
How You Can Help
“It’s nearly impossible to eliminate injuries to horses because the animal itself is a fairly frail structure.” - Bob Elliston, president of Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky.
Actually, it's quite easy to eliminate the suffering these animals endure. You can refuse to support your local racetracks and lobby against the construction of new ones. You can also educate your family and friends by telling them about the tragic lives racehorses lead.
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