The Kentucky Derby was held last weekend, and the race is one of the three legs (along with the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes) that comprise America’s Triple Crown. The race is a showcase of the best thoroughbred horses in the world, and it attracts tens of thousands of spectators. It’s also a source of great controversy. While many people support horse racing as a legitimate sport, others are horrified by the abuse and suffering of the animals. The most common form of abuse in horse racing is “juicing,” where a horse is given drugs to enhance its performance. There are other forms of abuse, including over-training and solitary confinement. But juicing is perhaps the most insidious of all, as horses are often pushed beyond their limits and then injured or killed.
The sport of horse racing has its roots in the ancient practice of running chariot races in Greece in 700 to 40 B.C. In the 1700s, organized horse races were established in the American colonies. Throughout history, Thoroughbreds have been bred to compete in both flat races over distances of up to five miles and steeplechases, which involve jumping over obstacles and are considered the most demanding tests of both speed and stamina.
Despite the fact that these arduous, dangerous, and sometimes deadly races were run over rough terrain on unpaved surfaces, a great deal of time and money has been spent to develop and improve track safety, medical care for horses, and a host of regulations designed to promote honesty and fair play. But, despite these improvements, horse racing still has a very bad reputation among animal-rights activists. Some want to ban it entirely, but Pacelle believes that this would be unrealistic. Instead, he and other reformers are pushing for serious changes.
Pacelle cites the example of Churchill Downs in Kentucky, which indefinitely suspended trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. after he trained two horses that died in races before the Derby. Both of these horses were injured, and there is no conclusive explanation as to why they collapsed and died on the track.
Another example of the industry’s failure to promote fairness and honest competition comes from a study published this year by researchers Johanna Dunaway and Regina G. Lawrence of the University of Oregon. The study analyzed print media coverage of races for governor and the U.S. Senate in 2004, 2006, and 2008. It found that corporate-owned newspapers were more likely to frame these races as a competitive game, with a greater emphasis on close contests and the weeks leading up to Election Day.
The gruesome truth is that horses are abused and pushed to their limits every day in this country and around the world, even though most of them are not trained or raced illegally. They are drugged, whipped, and over-trained, and are often put on the road to disaster before they’re even finished with their first race. Those that survive are often euthanized or sold to slaughterhouses, where they will meet a tragic end.