The spate of troubling deaths placed Santa Anita under unusual scrutiny that included a criminal investigation. But, sadly, it is not the only racetrack in the United States where horses die regularly. According to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, nearly 10 horses a week on average died at U.S. tracks in 2018, the most recent year for which it released data. Horseracing Wrongs, a nonprofit committed to ending U.S. horse racing, has counted 26 horses as having died so far this year at U.S. tracks, including four thoroughbreds who were euthanized over a span of six racing days at the Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans.
There has been some action. California’s horse racing board imposed stricter rules, including a ban on certain medications and limits on the use of riding crops. New York, home to such fabled tracks as Saratoga, put in place such reforms as giving veterinarians independent authority to examine horses and determine if they should be cleared for racing. Federal legislation that would establish a single nongovernmental, anti-doping authority to oversee medication rules and testing in horse racing has been introduced in Congress with bipartisan support.
It’s good that public outcry has forced government and the industry to finally start paying attention to the treatment of these beautiful animals. But the question is whether the proposed reforms go far enough. We have our doubts and think animal rights activists make a powerful case that the fundamental problem is with horse racing itself. That the California criminal investigation found no evidence of animal cruelty or other crimes underscored that there are inherent risks in a sport that drives horses to race.
“The killing is built into the system” is the blunt assessment of Patrick Battuello, founder and president of Horseracing Wrongs, who has spent the past five years tracking public data on racehorse deaths at the 100 racetracks in 35 states. He has confirmed 1,000 deaths annually but says the actual number is much higher.
Horse racing has been on a steady decline for the past two decades, and some believe that may have resulted in deteriorating conditions. It is long past time to stop viewing horse racing through the prism of its past glories and answer the question of whether a sport that gambles with the lives of horses — animals we profess to love — has a place in the modern world.