Would you put your money on a sport in which the athletes are routinely drugged so they can perform despite injuries? Where a stumble on the dirt can mean death or serious injury? A sport whose officials refuse to disclose accident rates and benefit from lax drug testing, as well as few if any regulations at the state and federal level?
An extensive New York Times investigation reveals all of the above about the U.S.’s horseracing industry:
The New York Times analyzed data from more than 150,000 races, as well as injury reports, drug test results and interviews and found that:
Approximately 3,600 horses have died while training or racing in the U.S. in the past three years.
Horses in lower grade claiming races have a 22 percent chance of breaking down or otherwise showing signs of injury than horses in higher grade races.
63 horses died at the track at the Finger Lakes Casino and Racetrack in upstate New York in 2011, more than double the fatalities of the five previous years.
The risk of jockeys and horses being seriously, and fatally, injured once they dash from the starting gate has significantly increased at a time when racetracks, facing significant losses in attendance, have added casino gambling to bolster flagging revenues. The result is higher purses at the track; with more at stake, trainers are running horses who simply are not fit. Too often, trainers give horses “bute,” the shortened name for phenylbutazone, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory, and other pain medicines. These might temporarily mask the pain so a horse can compete, but a drugged-up horse with pre-existing injuries is simply more likely to get injured further while running a race.
Currently, the US has no laws regulating drug testing and penalties for overmedicating race horses. In Indiana, a first drug offense means that trainers must forfeit their winnings. But in New Mexico, trainers who are caught drugging horses with the powerful painkiller Flunixin,”get a free pass on their first violation, a $200 fine on the second and a $400 fine on the third, records show.” Only eleven states require necropsies to determine if a horse who broke down had an existing injury. While poor track surfaces and jockey errors can contribute to a horse breaking down, the “prime suspect” is drugs.
In contrast, horses are not allowed to race on drugs in England, where the breakdown rate is about half that in the U.S. In Canada, Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto has one of the lowest breakdown rates in North America, with an incident rate of only 1.4; medication use is more closely scrutinized.
The data reveal a grim picture of the abuse of horses as the US racing industry struggles to stay in business. Jockeys are also exposed to tremendous dangers: The New York Times article opens and closes with a portrait of national champion jockey Jacky Martin, who broke his neck in three places in a claiming race and will now most likely spend the rest of his life on a respirator. In September 2011, Martin’s horse broke a leg at the start of a race and was euthanized; the next day, another horse, Teller All Gone, broke a leg at the same track, Ruidoso Downs Race Track in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains. Teller All Gone’s body was discarded in a junkyard beside an old toilet, near where he had been sold in an auction the year before.
In the US, horseracing, once called “the sport of kings,” has become a death trap.
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