Horse racing is one of America’s most enduring sporting traditions but is it too dangerous for the animals that compete?
As long as horse races are run, there will be controversy surrounding the treatment of the equine athletes at the core of a $39 billion a year sport.
“What we do is a privilege and we have a heightened responsibility because the participants are horses,” said Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
On the other side of the debate are animal rights activists like Kathy Guillermo, a senior vice president for PETA. “In a perfect world, we would never race these animals and make money off of that,” Guillermo said. Before working for PETA, Guillermo said she was involved in equine competition and was a fan of horse racing — her position toward the sport shifted over time.
Eight Belles: A turning point
Eight Belles trains for the 2008 Kentucky Derby, three days before her death on the track.
Dozens of racehorse injuries prove to be fatal each year. The sport has always had this problem but Waldrop said it wasn’t until “the last seven or eight years,” that attitudes within the industry shifted toward a closer focus on horse safety.
Waldrop and Guillermo both pointed to the on-track euthanization of Eight Belles at the 2008 Kentucky Derby as a definitive turning point regarding the public’s perception of the sport.
“Her death and the discovery that [2008 Kentucky Derby winner] Big Brown was racing with the benefit of steroids fundamentally changed this industry forever,” Waldrop said. “We became, as an industry, much more aware of how demanding the public was for a sport that was safe for all of our participants.”
After the Eight Belles tragedy unfolded on national television, trade organizations like the NTRA and the Jockey Club advocated for the creation of a nationwide database that tracks the frequency, types and outcomes of horse racing injuries. The Equine Injury Database launched in July 2008, two months after the death of Eight Belles.
According to the database, the occurrence of fatal injuries suffered by racehorses in 2014 was 1.89 per 1,000 starts; that number was down slightly from 1.90 in 2013. According to the Jockey Club, there were 41,277 races run in the United States last year.
“When Eight Belles was euthanized, we were asked how many catastrophic injuries were happening each year and we didn’t have an answer — it suggested we were hiding something but we just didn’t know,” Waldrop said. “Now, 90 percent of all races are represented in that database.”
The database takes into account factors like track length and surface type, helping researchers better understand the safest racing conditions. In last year’s report, fatal injuries were found to be most common on turf tracks and in races that were shorter than six furlongs.
The drug debate
PETA supporters protest the Belmont Stakes on June 7, 2008.
“We have seen the industry make some significant changes but unfortunately nothing that is preventing the breakdowns and deaths of the horses,” Guillermo said. “The misuse of medications are leading to the breakdown of horses.”
Last year, Guillermo oversaw the publication of a PETA investigation called, “The Horseracing Industry: Drugs, Deception and Death.” The report cited unnamed former racing industry professionals, as well as media members, surmising that, “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.”
“Some want to always blame overuse of permissive therapeutic medication but that is not supported by evidence. We have adequate drug testing,” Waldrop said, remarking that the NTRA is an organization that gives accreditation to racetracks across the country, based on a code of standards. “We don’t have any hard and fast rules governing how many times a horse can race per week but there are veterinarians at every track who run inspections.”
How do you make horse racing safer?
Dortmund is washed after training for the 2015 Kentucky Derby.
When asked what one thing they would do to make horse racing a safer sport, both Guillermo and Waldrop suggested preventative solutions to fatal injuries.
“I would have pre-race inspections at every track on every day,” Waldrop said. “We have learned that virtually every horse injury is multifactorial. There is no single cause, therefore there is no single solution but the pre-race exam is the best we have today at predicting [injuries].”
Meanwhile, Guillermo turned her attention to drugs. “The main thing we are advocating is for no medication at all in the week leading up to a race. If a horse needs medication, it shouldn’t be on the racetrack,” she said.
The sport has no federal governing body — instead, it’s run at the state level — but Guillermo gave credit to the Jockey Club for advocating federal oversight on medications used in horse racing.
“We love the horses. We’ve got to do everything possible to make sure they are safe,” Waldrop said. “We need to change more, there’s more to be done. I don’t tell our critics to back off.”
Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.