Following a scathing report linking the over-medication of race horses to an increased risk of injury and death for them and for jockeys, the Jockey Club — one of racing’s most influential organizations — has called for a ban on drugging horses on race day. The Jockey Club is also demanding far harsher penalties for offenders, including a lifetime ban for those who are repeatedly caught giving horses pain medications including “bute,” the shortened name for phenylbutazone, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory.
In the US, horses are allowed to race with a certain amount of medication in their system. In Europe, in contrast, horses cannot race with any amount of medication; the fatality rate is, notably, much lower there.
An analysis of data from over 150,000 races by the New York Times found shockingly high rates of horses breaking down on the track. In many cases, the horses had pre-existing injuries and had been given drugs so they could still race, though too often with fatal results for the horses and the jockeys.
The drop-off in interest in racing in the US has led to many tracks adding casino gambling, in a last-ditch effort to increase revenues. This decision might be temporarily saving the tracks, but has made racing more dangerous. Casino gambling means that the purse at a track is higher, so horses are running for largest amounts of money. Trainers and owners are therefore motivated — tempted — to race horses who are truly not fit.
Other racing groups including the Breeders’ Cup are supporting the Jockey Club’s proposed rules.
The New York Times investigation also found that regulations about medicating horses, testing and penalties vary widely from state to state. The worst abuses were found in New Mexico. Gov. Susana Martinez is now requesting a “full report” about conditions and possible reforms while the state’s Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat, is calling on Congress to support the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act, a bill which he is co-sponsoring with Representative Edward Whitfield, Republican from Kentucky. In a statement, Udall said that the “consequence of inconsistent state-level regulation is an epidemic of animal doping that has led to countless euthanizations of helpless horses and the injury and death of their riders.”
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Photo by Robert Hensley