Horse racing is one of the oldest sports in history, and despite evolving from a primitive contest of speed or stamina into a global spectacle involving enormous fields and sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, its basic concept has remained unchanged. The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line. It’s a simple but unforgiving concept, one that leaves the industry vulnerable to accusations of cruelty and exploitation.
A glance at the sport’s disciplinary record tells the story of a business that treats its horses as nothing more than commodities. The dozens of states that host horse races operate under a patchwork of rules, from the use of whips to what medications are allowed for racehorses to take. Trainers found guilty of breaking these rules in one jurisdiction often get away with it by moving to another state. The result is that, unlike major professional leagues like the NBA, there’s no one set of standards and rules that all horse trainers must adhere to across the country.
This is a huge problem for the sport, which is already struggling to find new customers. Research shows that people under 60 aren’t flocking to the track, and new would-be fans are turned off by scandals involving horse welfare and doping. The industry needs to make some serious changes, and fast, to save itself.
The first thing horse racing must do is create a comprehensive, high-quality system of care for the horses it no longer profits off. Currently, a great deal of former racehorses hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline after their careers end, and are left to fend for themselves unless they’re rescued by independent nonprofit rescues. The rest are sold for dog food or meat, and those who don’t find homes are shipped to places like Louisiana, where they’re fed a steady diet of grain before they’re sent to be slaughtered.
To fix this, the industry must commit to a profound ideological reckoning. That would involve a restructuring of the sport from top to bottom that prioritizes the horses at every decision point, from breeding shed to racetrack. It would mean placing a cap on the number of times a horse can run and its years in service, and integrating a more natural and equine-friendly lifestyle into the life of a racehorse.