The Horse Racing Industry

The sight of thousands of humans cheering wildly as horses thunder down the stretch is one of the quintessential Kentucky experiences. But this year’s Derby was also a reminder that horse racing isn’t just a spectator sport. It is a multibillion-dollar industry that forces animals to run around tracks made of hard dirt at breakneck speeds with people perched on their backs. And many of these horses, who are in a state of exorbitant physical stress for nearly the whole duration of a race, die from injuries sustained at the track. They are the victims of an industry that is rife with drug abuse and that sees horses’ careers end in slaughterhouses in countries like Canada, Mexico, Japan and France where their flesh is consumed as dog food and glue.

The day of the Derby, the sky was clear and a deep pinkish light lit the horses as they paraded into the starting gate. Mongolian Groom threw his head low and balked at the gate, as some horses do when they’re not ready to run. Bettors watch a horse’s coat in the walking ring before the race to determine whether it is bright and rippling with muscled excitement, and Mongolian Groom’s looked good.

Horses begin training and then running when their skeletal systems are still growing and unprepared for the physical stresses of competition racing on a hard track at high speeds. They are often injured while racing, and one study found that one horse in 22 races dies of an injury suffered during a race. Injuries can range from pulmonary hemorrhage (bleeding out of the lungs) to fractured bones and severed spines. Sometimes, a dead racehorse’s skull will be crushed so completely that only a small piece of bone remains, and limbs may have to be amputated because of shattered ligaments.

Many horses are entered in higher-class races called graded stakes or handicap races in the United States, conditions races in England and France and group races in Australia and New Zealand, where the competitors carry weights that are adjusted according to age, gender and class. In these races, the winner is deemed to be the best of its class. But a number of lower-class horses are put in claiming races, where they are for sale for less than their worth until shortly before the start of the race.

A claiming race is a form of a match race in which horses of equal value compete with each other for a prize money that is paid to the owners of the horses finishing in the top four or five positions. In addition to a purse, the winner of a race may be awarded a trophy or other symbolic prizes. A horse’s position is called by a track official at various points on the course where the location of the tracker (often called a pylon) is noted on a chart with markers called pole(s) at measured distances around the track—the quarter pole, for example, is a quarter of a mile from the finish line.