Few things are more thrilling to watch than thoroughbreds hurtling full speed around a track or more stomach-churning than one collapsing on that track, both front legs broken. Unless the racing industry gets more serious about addressing the latter, the former will and should be stopped.
During their winter-spring meets, 30 horses died at Santa Anita, one of California’s and the country’s premiere race tracks. The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, a compilation of racing deaths, noted that nearly 10 horses a week died in 2018, a rate at least double anywhere else in the world.
Tracks and racing regulators have made efforts to improve the grim picture. Tracks have been rebuilt and resurfaced with an eye to making them less punishing on the fragile bones and joints of horses running full speed.
Breeders and tracks have reasons for concern other than sympathy for the animals themselves. Public perception of the sport is increasingly negative, a potentially final fatal blow to a sport that has been in decline in the number of thoroughbreds, attendance and betting revenues for decades.
If horse racing is to survive, along with the breeding, nurturing, training and selling of race horses, the sport must get more serious about banning the drugs that allow horses to run despite injury or weakness. It must adopt the strict practices that are already in place outside the United States.
One of the organizations leading the effort so far is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It was instrumental in drawing up strict rules about the use of drugs and whips and putting them nearer international standards. Ironically, the first track to put those rules in place, rules that may completely alter the injury profile of the track, was Santa Anita.
Its owners, along with the Jockey Club, other owners and breeders, and animal welfare groups support a recently introduced bill to establish a uniform national standard. The Kentucky Derby’s Churchill Downs, which has a death rate 50 percent higher than the national average, doesn’t. U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said he won’t support the standards bill unless Churchill Downs gets on board.
Unless those involved in racing do all they can to protect the horses that generate their livelihoods and their profits, the industry deserves its fate. Either way, it’s a matter of life and death.