Is Horse Racing Cruel?

The story that broke this week—that a trainer with a top-rated stable has been using illegal drugs and neglecting horses—came on like a thunderclap. It allowed the public to see what many animal activists have been alleging for years: that horse racing is inherently cruel and that racehorses are routinely abused. The reaction to the New York Times piece and the video on which it was based split essentially into three camps. There was the camp that downplayed or defended it; there was the camp that cited it as vindicating proof that horse racing is necessary and should continue, and there was the camp that was horrified and uttered a lot of empty platitudes about how concerned they are.

The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between. There’s no doubt that some trainers, assistant trainers, jockeys and owners care a great deal about their horses and would never intentionally harm them. The fact is, though, that a lot of these people do, and the result is that some horses get hurt and some die. And when that happens, the public is right to be angry.

It’s also true that many of the horse-racing industry’s problems are rooted in the way the sport is run, and not the people involved. Racing is a business, and a good one at that; it makes a lot of money for the owners, jockeys and horses themselves. But it’s also a business that relies on the rapid, brutal pace of sprint races and the exorbitant physical stress they put on the animals. That means that horses die, break down and are discarded at an alarming rate.

But that doesn’t mean that horse racing isn’t changing. Improvements in technology, better medical treatment and more rigorous rules have made a difference. New thermal imaging cameras can detect heat stroke in a horse in the walking ring; MRI scanners, endoscopes and X-rays allow for more accurate diagnoses before and after races; 3D printing allows for custom-fitted casts and splints for injured horses; and more.

The biggest change, though, has been in the way that racehorses are trained. For a long time, horses were raced at an early age because it was too expensive to wait and let them grow up to be more robust and less likely to suffer injuries. Then came the era of performance-enhancing drugs, and those, along with some overtraining, created a perfect storm. Horses were doped with powerful painkillers designed for humans, anti-inflammatories that bled over into race preparation, and a whole host of other things. Adding to that mix, the testing capability of racing officials was woefully behind, and penalties were weak. A trainer could be fined for doping in one jurisdiction and then simply move to another with his team. The result is that, even with all the technological advances in racing, many horses still die from the extreme, sustained physical stress of the sport. The death of Eight Belles and, just this year, of Medina Spirit, have sparked a serious reconsideration.