If the horse racing industry could, it might like to put up a screen to shield the public view of the thousands of horses that have died at the approximately 100 racetracks, large and small, across the United States over the past several years. There is no single clearinghouse for this information, so I have endeavored, through Freedom of Information Act requests and monitoring of reports by individual tracks, to try to quantify the carnage resulting from the “sport of kings.”
In the past five years, more than 5,000 racehorses have died in the United States, as documented with names, dates and locations on my website, Horseracing Wrongs. That appalling 1,000-per-year rate reflects just reportable, racing-related deaths. Hundreds more die annually in their stalls from what the industry describes as “non-racing” causes — colic, laminitis, “barn accident” or simply “found dead in the morning.”
For all their power and size, racehorses are delicate animals, but they are treated as industrial commodities almost from the moment of birth. Owners generally thrust them into an intensive training regimen at 18 months — long before a horse’s body is remotely mature — and they are first raced competitively about six months later. From there, the physically grinding regimen of racing begins, because if horses aren’t racing, they aren’t earning.
Death can come in many forms. Cardiovascular collapse. Pulmonary hemorrhage, or bleeding in the lungs. Blunt-force head trauma from collisions with other horses or the track itself in a fall. Snapped necks, severed spines, shredded ligaments. The horses’ legs can shatter as they try to support a 1,000-pound body with a jockey on top, at speeds of about 40 miles per hour. Sometimes a leg will break so severely that the limb remains attached to the rest of the body only by skin and tendons. Badly injured horses are euthanized with an injection of pentobarbital solution.
The euphemisms for racehorse deaths and injuries that lead to their being “put down” also come in many forms: “bad step,” “went wrong,” “broke down,” “sudden cardiac event” and “exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage.”
The thousands of catastrophic injuries and sudden deaths might sound like a form of slaughter — but then there is the actual slaughtering of racehorses.
The use of horses for meat production is illegal in the United States, but that simply means horses are shipped out of the country, mostly to Canada or Mexico. According to the Equine Welfare Alliance, using Agriculture Department data, in the period from 2008 to early 2018, more than 1.3 million horses were sent to slaughter from the United States, an average of about 130,000 annually. A Wild for Life Foundation study in 2012, again using USDA data, found that from 2002 to 2010, 19 percent of the horses slaughtered were thoroughbreds. Another study pegged it at 16 percent.
Even allowing for a possible decline since then, assuming improved care for racehorses, lowering the thoroughbred total to 12 percent would still translate to about 15,000 racehorses exported for slaughter annually. Compare the total with what the Jockey Club, a horse racing industry organization, counts as the annual “foal crop,” about 21,000 horses born in each of the past seven years. In come the new racehorses, out goes a significant percentage of that number in no-longer-competitive or simply unwanted racehorses for slaughter.
For Americans who know horse racing primarily from the annual TV spectacle of the Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown races, the dark and bloody underbelly of the sport might come as a shock. They might also be unaware of just how grim the economic outlook is for horse racing. The Courier-Journal in Louisville — the heart of horse racing — reported last year that the industry’s problems include “numbers of races and total starters that have been cut roughly in half since 1990, a five-year streak of declining purses and an on-track handle” — the amount of money bet — “that has plunged by 51 percent since 2001.” Attendance at U.S. tracks dropped nearly 50 percent between 1975 and 1997, the Atlantic noted in 2014, from 78 million to 42 million.
The decline might have been much steeper if horse racing weren’t heavily subsidized by revenue from slot machines, steered to tracks in many states by politicians hoping to aid the racing industry. But as The Post noted in 2012, “When slots were legalized, the machines proved to be so lucrative many track owners lost interest in the sport and viewed it as a nuisance.”
Horse racing might be a nuisance to many track owners, but it is a menace to the animals it depends on. As the staggering toll in dead horses becomes clear, Americans should consider asking their state and federal legislators to outlaw a cruel pastime whose time has passed.