American Race Horses: Inbred, Overmedicated, Overworked

Sleek Thoroughbreds in the peak of condition, racing against one another in that fluid, rhythmic movement they have, their jockeys guiding them in the quest to be the first to cross the finish line.

What’s wrong with this description of a horse race? Right. “The peak of condition.”

Anyone who keeps up with horse racing knows that horses today are breaking down on the track, some so badly that they have to be euthanized. Barbaro, who in 2006 broke his right rear leg, stayed alive for eight months, but succumbed to laminitis. Then came George Washington’s death in 2007 at the Breeder’s Cup. He fractured his right front leg.  And finally, the pitiable sight of Eight Belles, who broke her two front ankles shortly after she’d come in second at the Kentucky Derby this year. There was no hope she could be saved due to the inability to bear her own weight, and she was euthanized right on the track. These horses were high profile racing horses and their deaths brought home to racing fans and the American public the true condition of many American horses: inbred, overmedicated, and overworked.

As the public has become increasingly aware of the problems with the horses themselves in racing, some critics have called for a ban on racing. They believe that race owners and trainers are engaging in horse abuse. Others are calling for reforms in the industry, hoping that the sport of kings can continue. Implementing reform, though, is complicated. Of course, those of us who love horses and want only their well-being think changes should be implemented as soon as possible. But for one thing, there is no national governing body to implement changes on a national level. Indeed, in the long run, Congress may to step in and bring pressure to bear on the states to do something.  At present, however, some states and horse racing associations are working on plans to change the sport, in some cases, radically, in hopes of saving it. From my research, I’ve seen that well-intentioned people in the sport—individuals and groups—are not in complete agreement as to what should be done and those who have made plans to study the situation are not moving as quickly as they should. Reforms should have been made long ago.

One seemingly simple reform could be to reorganize the schedule for the Triple Crown races so that horses are not so physically stressed. Frank DeFord points out that the “Derby [early in May] is run at a mile and a quarter … a long distance for young 3-years-olds to cover.” The second race, the Preakness, comes only two weeks later [italics mine] and is shorter than the Derby. The young horses run a long race first and a shorter race second. Then, three weeks later [italics mine], comes the Belmont, a mile and a half, “a distance virtually no race horse in America runs anymore….” It is clear that such close scheduling doesn’t allow enough time for the horses to recover completely before the next race. Americans should look to Europe for the right way to schedule races.

Three changes have to be made in racing if horses are to survive.

(1) Breeding practices must change. At first blush, this seems impossible because inbreeding has become so ingrained in the sport. Horses are bred for size, speed, and early development. This means that a young colt would participate in only a small number of races and then be offered for lucrative stud contracts. The horse will then further contaminate the breeding population.

The long history of inbreeding within the industry, which was supposed to produce the most desirable characteristics in race horses, has made today’s horses the products of a thinned gene pool. Weaknesses have been bred in. For example, USA Today of May 6, 2008, said, shockingly, that “all 20 horses in [the] Derby were descendants of prized stallion Native Dancer, a 1950s horse whose offspring are known for being precociously fast and for suffering leg injuries.” Mike Celizic sums it up: “Animals are bred to beyond the limits of their own mortality for the sole purpose of running around in circles so that people can bet on which one will get to the finish first. And, while the horses are born to run, there is the bothersome fact that it is necessary to put small people with whips on their backs to keep them focused on their goal.” While Celizic concedes that the horses are generally treated well and that there should be no ban on racing, he does emphasize the business of the sport and the effect on the fragile animals in the races. Horses should be chosen to race whose bloodlines are more varied and thus the animals have stronger bodies. A change in breeding practices would take a long time, and would involve a radical change in the minds of breeders, owners, trainers, and everyone else who makes a living from racing.

(2) Outlaw steroid use in all states and regulate the use of painkillers. Readers are well aware of the anabolic steroid scandal in baseball but may not know that steroids are legal for horses in some states. An example is the current two-time winner Big Brown, whose trainer Richard Dutrow readily admits that he has been giving his horse steroid shots monthly. It’s legal in the states where he races Big Brown. Why are steroids given to horses? Proponents of steroids say that these drugs “increase their [horses’] appetite and give them more energy as they undergo training and year-round racing.” Horses that are on steroids bulk up just as human athletes do. But those who argue against the indiscriminate use of steroids say that they predispose a horse to injury; horses should be rested, not injected.,0,5424999,print.story

One group wants to see four anabolic steroids regulated by January 1, 2009. The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, working with the Association of Racing Commissioners International states that the four steroids, which may have therapeutic uses for some horses, should have regulated cut-off times: a 30-45 day cut-off before a race, and banned on the day of the race. The Federal Drug Administration approves Winstrol, Equipoise, Durabolin, and testosterone. These steroids would be regulated, not banned. Besides putting us back where we are now, it seems, three of the above can be found in intact male horses; thus testing is harder. Horse people argue whether the drugs should be tested in blood or urine. And there are no tests for some seventy other steroids. Another complication to reform lies in the federal government’s interest in this problem and possible intervention on its part.

The Excessive use of painkillers is another problem. Bob Ford writes that “Since the 1970s, when the racing industry legalized the use of medications that are prohibited everywhere else in the world [italics mine], horses have been able to run despite pain—because they don’t feel it. Lasix, the anti-bleeding agent, is standard here and anathema everywhere else. Butazolidin [an anti-inflammatory drug] is administered as if it were aspirin.” Ford says that the banned drug Mepivacaine “deadens pain so well that a severely injured horse will literally run its heart and legs out for you.”

(3) Install synthetic tracks. Proponents of the artificial track claim that it is safer and easier for horses to race on, there are fewer deaths and breakdowns, the track is water resistant, and it requires less maintenance. Bill Finley reported in January of this year that “So far, as a whole, synthetic tracks are producing about 33 percent fewer fatalities [italics mine] than conventional dirt tracks. Those numbers come from a study being conducted by Florida-based veterinarian Dr. Mary Scollay . . . .” Finley points out that many horses are being saved, who if racing on dirt would have had to be euthanized or sustained injuries that ruined their careers or kept them from racing temporarily.

However, Dan Johnson points out some drawbacks of these tracks. There have been some maintenance problems, contrary to manufacturers’ claims, Polytrack froze at Turfway Park and Woodbine in Toronto, and some horses prefer dirt and have problems on artificial turf.  And Andrew Beyer says that artificial tracks have an anti-speed factor, and maintains that “plodders” win on Polytrack. Breeders would have to breed a different kind of horse if artificial tracks were installed.

Ongoing research shows that artificial tracks are promising. Racetracks considering a changeover should, however, test the new surface for an adequate amount of time to make sure it’s everything that has been promised, and that horses are safe on it.

Barbaro, George Washington, and Eight Belles—and many more who haven’t made the news—literally raced themselves to death for their owners, trainers, and investors. It should have been clear a long time ago that American horse racing has become all too often the sport of greedy people who see nothing immoral in sacrificing the horses they use so badly. There must be radical change before more horses die: change breeding practices and race horses with varied bloodlines; ban steroids and regulate painkillers; and finally, provide artificial track that will be easier on the horses’ bodies, particularly their legs. Racing slower is not a bad thing.

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