The sport’s crooks are a feral minority, but they’re large enough to stain the integrity of horse racing for everybody else. The dupes labor under the fantasy that the industry is broadly fair and honest. And then there are the masses in the middle, who see wrong but don’t do all they can to right it. This group includes people who are naive and innocent, but it also consists of people who know the industry is far more crooked than it ought to be and yet they still don’t give their all to help fix it.
Whether we’re talking about Eight Belles, or this year’s Derby winner, Medina Spirit, or the other horses who have died under the exorbitant physical stress of racing—one study estimated that 3 thoroughbreds die every day of catastrophic injuries during races—it’s time for the masses in the middle to speak up and demand an end to this cruelty. This is the only way racing can save itself from being eclipsed by a society, culture and justice system that recognizes animals as entitled to fundamental rights.
This is not just a matter of safety: The current system of drug testing and stewarding for racing’s 38 U.S. states is patchwork at best, and a complete overhaul of the rules is long overdue. It’s also a matter of addressing the lack of an adequately funded industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for all ex-racehorses, who are left without jobs after their careers end and often hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline, where they face arbitrary, sometimes outrageous ransoms before ending up in Mexican or Canadian slaughterhouses.
The first step in addressing these issues must be the elimination of the incentive for trainers to drug their horses. In America, where racing is the most popular spectator sport, the top 10 trainers each year earn millions of dollars in purses, and those who win the most money receive the most bonuses from tracks and other sponsors.
These incentives are driving trainers to use dangerous drugs like Lasix, a diuretic that causes dehydration, as well as steroids and anabolic agents to enhance performance. This is why many races are shortened to 21/2 miles, a far cry from the classic distances of old. As a result, more horses are bred, injured and killed. And the public’s appetite for racing is declining, too. The death of Eight Belles and the recent revelations about the mistreatment of horses at two prominent training facilities in Kentucky and New York should be a wake-up call for everyone involved in this multibillion-dollar industry.