The Truth About a Horse Race

A horse race is a spectacle of sleek, powerful animals gliding over a course adorned with jutting poles, jumps and other obstacles. It’s a sport whose roots are deep in the history of man. It was practiced as early as the 5th century bc, and Xenophon described it in detail. The modern racing industry grew out of the British empire, and figures like Admiral Rous and Phil Bull established its handicapping system.

But beneath the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred racing lies a world of drugs, injuries, gruesome breakdowns and slaughter. While spectators show off their fancy outfits and sip mint juleps, the horses run for their lives.

When Eight Belles died in the Kentucky Derby a decade ago, and more recently when Medina Spirit perished at the Saratoga meet in 2008, their deaths sparked a reckoning of horse racing’s ethics and integrity. Whether it is the exorbitant physical stress of competition, or the use of illegal drugs, or the breeding of horses for speed rather than stamina, or any number of other issues, horses continue to die in the sport.

Despite the efforts of the many charities, private groups and individuals who network, fundraise and work tirelessly to help them, ex-racehorses hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline. Some, in places like Louisiana, are euthanized on the spot, while others are shipped off to Mexico or Canada and slaughtered. It is hell for them in the purest sense of the word.

This week, The Atlantic published a piece on a video that reveals alleged abuse at two of horse racing’s most esteemed training facilities, Churchill Downs in Louisville and Saratoga in upstate New York. The piece is based on a video produced by PETA, which accuses trainer Steve Asmussen and his top assistant trainer, Scott Blasi, of mistreating their charges.

Virtually no one outside the racing industry cares how PETA got the video, just as they don’t care how other activist groups get their undercover footage. What they care about is the images.

It is no surprise that the video’s release comes on the heels of a story in The Times that detailed the death of another horse, this one a star, and as a new crop of foals blinks into the sun. While donations by the industry’s wealthy tycoons and gamblers are critical on behalf of these young horses, they do not cancel out participation in ongoing, often deadly exploitation of a younger generation. It is time for the racing industry to address this.