Horse racing, which attracts tens of millions of fans and is one of the world’s most popular spectator sports, has a long, rich history that is full of myths and mysteries. But behind the romanticized façade of jockeys in hats sipping mint juleps and horses in tight packs running for their lives, is a dark, ugly world of injuries, drug abuse, and gruesome breakdowns. And while the sport’s apologists have tried to deny or downplay the truth, there is no denying that horses in racing are routinely subjected to exorbitant physical stress, sometimes to the point of death.
The deaths of two of racing’s biggest stars, Eight Belles and Medina Spirit, both in 2008 during the Kentucky Derby, sparked a national reckoning about the sport’s ethics and integrity. And while the industry has made some modest reforms in a decade, the problems are still pervasive. Horses are dying at a horrifying rate, often from the traumatic and sudden collapse of their hearts during the intense physical stresses of competition and training. They are also being broken limbs, suffering from the effects of drugs, and undergoing excruciatingly painful treatments such as pin firing and other forms of extreme physical torture that are designed to increase their speed.
In addition to the horrific conditions on the racetrack, many people involved in the industry are cheaters or countenance such behavior. They are a small, feral minority, but they are enough to stain the sport for everyone else. And then there are those in the middle, the naive or hopeless masses who labor under the fantasy that racing is more fair and honest than it ought to be and do not give their all to bringing the sport to the level of ethical integrity that it deserves.
It is easy for the racing industry’s legions of apologists to dismiss the latest revelations, based on an undercover video released by PETA, that show trainer Steve Asmussen abusing world-class racehorses in their care. But to do so is to misunderstand what it means for racing to be truly cruel. The truth is that the cruelty inherent in racing is a part of its business model; it is baked into the sport’s very DNA, and no amount of reform can ever change that.