The Harms of Horse Racing

Despite the romanticized facade, horse races are often a world of injuries and drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns and slaughter. They are run at speeds so fast that horses’ skeletal systems cannot keep up, and they are subjected to whips and tongue-tying and jiggers, even though these devices are illegal under animal welfare laws. A growing body of research reveals the harms.

In recent years, a spate of deaths — including 30 at Santa Anita in California in 2019 — sparked widespread concern among racing fans and spurred industry improvement. New safety regulations requiring necropsies and reviews of contributing factors are being adopted nationwide, while some states have begun public databases to catalogue the equine injuries and fatalities.

But there’s still more to be done. As horse racing’s fan base has declined, the industry has been relying more on gamblers to boost revenue and fill grandstand seats. And the betting public has shown that it is not willing to put up with animal cruelty or other problems in exchange for a chance to cheer on their favorite horse.

To entice them, bookmakers offer exotic bets like parlays and teases — which combine the winners of multiple races into a single wager — as well as online, mobile and voicebet betting. Many also have loyalty programs that reward bettors with credits that can be used to place real money bets. In addition, television channels like TVG — which includes Thoroughbred races in its sports cable packages — and online sites offer betting on almost every race.

In the past, the sport’s fans — whether bettors or not — rooted for their favorite horse by name. But with the exception of Seabiscuit, most bettors were just as likely to cheer by number. “Come on, Three!” was their cry.

For decades, most thoroughbreds had been injected that morning with Lasix, a diuretic noted on the racing form with a boldface “L.” It was supposed to help prevent the pulmonary bleeding that hard running causes in a majority of horses — who, in fact, are prone to hemorrhage as a result of their grueling career in which they are forced to sprint on tracks made of hard-packed dirt and endure whipping and other brutal treatment for their entire lives before they end up in foreign slaughterhouses.

Lasix’s primary function, however, was to cause horses to unload epic amounts of urine — twenty or thirty pounds worth, at times. A slew of research has found that this excessive fluid loss robs the horses of energy and contributes to their injuries and early deaths. But despite the evidence, most racing insiders do not acknowledge these problems. Many blame the messenger instead — a group of activists that horse racing insiders love to hate: PETA.