Photo: Clutch Pockets Wambli/Shutterstock
I was 18 when I first saw a racehorse collapse. It was the late 1990s and I was a practice rider galloping horses at the Del Mar racetrack with the Pacific Ocean glittering in the distance. Burned into my memory is the image of a petite dark bay horse on the inner rail just beside the wire in the bleached light of a Southern California morning. The uninjured rider stood, tugging at the reins to steady the horse. The horse had sustained a clean fracture of the right front ankle and his foot was dangling and swinging from the underside of his leg. He turned and staggered in panic on the stump – euthanasia would soon follow. I looked away and felt instantly nauseous as I jogged past my filly, the siren that wails down my bum in an accident running through my head. Little did I know at the time that this would be the first of many such scenes I would see at the racetrack over the course of my life.
Decades later, the deaths continue to roll. Seven racehorses died in the days leading up to this year’s Kentucky Derby. Four mishaps, a broken neck in the paddock and two unexplained collapses paint a bleak picture of horse racing in America.
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The horses died at Churchill Downs during the only season when racing is relevant to most Americans, so they were heavily publicized. But hundreds of racehorses across America suffer the same fate every year as ever. The deaths are routine and while the industry churns out statements admitting it has problems, they are problems that never seem to be addressed. Two horses died on Saturday alone, but Derby Day racing went on as scheduled. Perhaps those in power could have called the matter off. But there’s the money and the fashion and the like-new juleps to think about. The message is clear: “We don’t care.”
There is no other mainstream sport where carnage and indifference occur so regularly – and are so tolerated. These horses did what was asked of them, and they still suffered and died. There is clearly a problem with what is being asked of them. The horses cannot withstand such speed when they are so young and underdeveloped. You will be pushed to the point of exhaustion. The repetitive percussive practice of exercising and running kills some of them and ruins others for their lives. Any meaningful reform isn’t just about weeding out dopers or changing track surfaces, it has to be more holistic. The lack of horsemanship and respect for the animal has led to a business where horses are treated like cars.
When trainer Todd Pletcher was asked if he agreed with the state vet’s decision to scratch his horse Forte from Saturday’s race, his complacency was appalling. “Obviously we are in an environment where the audit is very rigorous. Some years I’m not sure [Forte’s bruised foot] would have been a problem, but this year it was,” he said.
Does Pletcher, one of the leading players in the industry, think the exam is inappropriate? It almost certainly stopped Forte from walking away with an injury. Forte’s owner, Mike Repole, didn’t come across much better. He said “the cruel part” of racing is having your horse scraped out of the Derby line-up. The deaths of the five horses that had been killed by this point seemed far more gruesome.
US horse racing is on the decline and it’s its own fault. The dying won’t stop, not completely, ever. Horses died 20 years ago when I was a young rider and they are still dying today. The racing industry is touting a reduction in fatalities from track to track, but has yet to compile its own unified database to record all fatalities. On some routes, reporting fatalities is voluntary. If sport is to save lives and save any measure of respect, it must take big steps. Major reforms of the breeding stable (too many foals are produced) and horse training, track experience and retirement are severely underfunded. Countless thoroughbreds end up on dealer lots and in killpens every year.
Racing is never banned – there’s too much money to be made from it as gambling gets easier in the US. But things could be very different if only the racing world were willing to change. There are many in the industry who take good care of horses, envision a better sport and yearn for change.
But like me, they won’t bet on the industry changing for the better any time soon. For too many in racing, a horse is just a money machine.