Photo: Heidi Carpenter / Flickr
It was an exhilarating finish at the 142nd running of the Preakness Stakes on Saturday. The favorite, Always Dreaming, jumped to an early lead out of the gate, trailed closely by a horse named Classic Empire. The two ran three-quarters of the race neck-and-neck, well ahead of the pack, until they hit the stretch run. Always Dreaming — which had won the Kentucky Derby and was chasing the coveted Triple Crown — began to lag, leaving Classic Empire all alone for an easy gallop to the finish.
But out of nowhere, in a frenetic shower of dust and dirt, Cloud Computing surged out of the pack and pulled alongside Classic Empire. As their jockeys whipped them with gusto, the two thoroughbreds sprinted nose-and-nose toward the finish line, with Cloud Computing pulling off a heroic come-from-behind victory.
It’s easy to see why so many people love horse racing: the photo finishes; the thrill of gambling; the romantic names; and all those rich folks gussied up to the nines, drinking fancy cocktails. But there is a dark underbelly to all the fun. This is a brutal “sport” riddled with doping, abuse and death.
A 2014 undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) exposed cruelty at the highest levels of horse racing. Famous trainers at world-class facilities like Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course were recorded drugging horses, talking about shocking them and pointing out injuries that should have sidelined the animals, but didn’t.
Doping in general is a huge problem in American horse racing, especially at the lower ranks, like casino tracks. Thoroughbreds are given legal and illegal drugs to numb pain so they can train and race through injuries and fatigue. This, of course, results in catastrophic and gruesome injuries on the track, like broken legs. These aren’t freak accidents, either. The New York Times found that 24 horses died every week at American tracks — an average of more than 3 horses a day.
It’s no better a fate for horses that manage to survive their careers, but can no longer race. Despite their charming names, the animals are but mere commodities to many owners. And once those commodities can no longer run and make money, they’re junk. Long story short: They become dog food and glue.
How can all this neglect be allowed to happen? There are strict laws preventing the abuse of animals during the filming of movies, for example. If 24 horses died every week during Hollywood film shoots, we’d be outraged. And while at least some movies have artistic virtues, what does horse racing offer the greater good? In reality, it’s a bunch of animals forced to run so people have something to bet on and shout about while they’re drinking. Or, in a word, entertainment.
Do we really need to kill 3 horses a day to entertain ourselves?
Congress made a modest effort to tackle the issue in the wake of PETA’s investigation, leading to the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act in 2015. The measure would have created a nationwide drug testing program for race horses that would have been overseen by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency — but it never went to vote.
However, there is once again hope on the horizon. Republican Representative Andy Barr of Kentucky has recently said he plans to reintroduce the bill sometime in the next couple of weeks. This time around, Congress would be wise to pass the measure sooner rather than later. They should also amend the legislation to ban the establishment of all new racetracks in the U.S. With trainers and owners already operating completely out of control, there’s no reason to add to the cruelty. There are already plenty of horses being run into an early grave in hopes of a bid payday.
Broadcasters like NBC, which televises the Triple Crown, can also do their part. They should demand higher standards from the industry or refuse to cover and promote these events, regardless of how big or profitable they might be.
Horse racing is steeped in ancient history and has been a shared pastime among many civilizations. But that doesn’t make it any less cruel or barbaric. Congress has a big chance to move the industry in the right direction by passing the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act. As it stands now, America’s relationship with race horses is exploitative and pernicious. I have to think, especially in this day and age, that we’re better than that.
It’s time to prove it.