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March 28, 2012

The Tragic Toll of Horse Racing

It was 22 years ago that I wrote a cover story for The Animals’ Agenda magazine about problems in the horse racing industry―an absence of any national regulatory authority, widespread drugging to allow injured horses to race or to enhance their performance, racing of 2-year-olds before their bodies are mature enough to withstand the pounding from competitive racing, unforgiving track surfaces, breeding practices that value speed over physical soundness, and all-too-frequent breakdowns. Last Sunday, four New York Times reporters wrote a massive piece that demonstrates that horse racing has not cleaned up its act in the last two decades. In fact, they argue that the industry is worse than ever for horses, with 24 horses dying on the track every week. Jockeys are also being injured and killed at unacceptably high rates.

Race horses

All of this amounts to a kind of fraud; the people putting money down on horses have no idea what medication is being administered to the animals, and they have little comprehension of the terrible toll of injury and death involved.

One subject the story did not touch upon are the discards from the racing industry, horses that end up in the slaughter pipeline. Thousands of thoroughbreds and quarter horses, no longer performing adequately on the track, are sold off to killer buyers and shipped in cattle trucks to Canada and Mexico. Then they are slaughtered, and their meat is exported to Europe and Asia for human consumption. The HSUS has repeatedly documented inhumane transport and slaughter of horses that were perfectly healthy before the slaughter industry turned them into meat. This week, HSUS and Front Range Equine Rescue filed a legal petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prevent former race horses and companion horses from being used as human food. The petition alleges that the drugs given to these horses throughout their lives are banned by FDA and/or potentially dangerous to humans. 

The Times story also did not cover the massive overbreeding of horses, and how so few of these horses succeed on the track. The horse racing industry is producing more horses than people can take care of, and that’s providing an opening for the horse slaughter industry.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., have introduced legislation in Congress to crack down on horse-racing abuses. “For too long, the safety of jockeys and equine athletes has been neglected for the pursuit of racing profits,” said Whitfield of the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act of 2011, H.R. 1733 and S. 886. “The doping of injured horses and forcing them to compete is deplorable and must be stopped. Despite repeated promises from the racing industry to end this practice, voluntary meaningful action and oversight are not going to happen.”

The HSUS’s equine department has concentrated on ending horse slaughter, seeing that federal laws against soring of Tennessee Walking horses for use in shows are enforced, and improving management of wild horses and burros. It’s now time for us to add the reform of horse racing to our positive agenda for horses, since the industry has failed to regulate itself after a series of high-profile incidents, such as breakdowns by Barbaro and Eight Belles. The New York Times story will be another blip on the screen unless we look to drive lasting change.

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