Another Kentucky Derby week has ended in tragedy. Two young horses, Raspberry Kiss and Dr. Rap, were involved in a collision; Raspberry Kiss broke her hip and had to be euthanized. Soon after, Stormalogy, the projected American Turf winner, fractured his leg and was euthanized. On race day, Derby favorite, I Want Revenge, was found with an injured ankle and was scratched from the race. Projected winner Friesan Fire had part of his hoof ripped off right after the race began; yet was raced for the entire course anyway, bleeding all the way. (Not surprisingly, Friesan Fire was ridden by Gabriel Saez, the same jockey who unmercilessly whipped Eight Belles until she crossed the finish line and collapsed in last year’s Derby.)
One would think that after all the injuries and deaths that have occurred in the Derby— and in horseracing in general—horse trainers, owners, and jockeys would finally hang up their reigns and admit that the so-called sport is unsporting. Instead, they’re heading to the next leg of the Triple Crown: The Preakness, which takes place this weekend in Maryland. After that, they’ll travel to New York for the Belmont Stakes.
Growing up in Baltimore, about 20 minutes from Pimlico Race Track, where the Preakness is run, I was surrounded by race-day celebrations and festivities every year. Back then, it seemed like harmless fun. But horse racing is anything but harmless. Most horses used by the racing industry are raced too young, too often, and on hard surfaces that practically guarantee breakdowns.
Veterinarians routinely give injured and ailing horses drugs like Lasix (which controls bleeding in the lungs), phenylbutazone (an anti-inflammatory), and cortiscosteroids (for pain and inflammation) in order to keep them racing for as long as possible. While legal, these drugs can also mask pain or make a horse run faster. Eventually, the horses succumb to the pain, often collapsing right on the racetrack. While the horse racing industry has made some basic reforms since Eight Belles died— and steroids have been banned in the Triple Crown states—the use of drugs to keep ill and injured horses on the track is still legal.
An executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium has also said that there “could be thousands” of illegal drugs used in the horse racing industry. Rick Dutrow Jr., the trainer of Big Brown, the horse who won the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, has been fined every year since 2000 for a horse doping situation. In 2003, one of his horses tested positive for an illegal analgesic. Although Dutrow has been suspended various times, ranging from 14 to 60 days, he is still allowed to compete, for some reason. I suspect it’s because the horse racing industry doesn’t really care about animal welfare—it cares about attracting crowds and turning huge profits. Drugs, injuries, and death are just “business as usual.”
The owner of a filly who suffered a heart attack and died mid-race at Pimlico said of the horse’s death, “I guess that’s part of the game.” The sentiment was echoed by a general manager of Virginia’s Colonial Downs, where five horses died within eight days in 2007. “We’re upset when it happens,” he said, “but it’s just part of the racing game.”
In a commentary on the industry, a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News remarked, “It is not something they talk about much in their advertising, but horses die in this sport all the time—every day, every single day.”
But unlike Eight Belles and Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby champion, who was euthanized after shattering his leg in the Preakness, these horses seldom make headlines. Their battered bodies are simply hidden from public view; often shipped to slaughter.
PETA recently erected a headstone at Churchill Downs race track (where the Kentucky Derby is held) to represent the 12,000 “racehorses” who are sent to slaughter every year. PETA also placed 263 headstones to represent the known horses who have died on the track since last year’s Kentucky Derby, one headstone for the approximately 832 other horses who have died but whose names are not known, and a special memorial to Eight Belles. (For details, see here.)
One unnecessary death is unacceptable. More than 13,000 a year is absolutely outrageous. I cannot fathom why fans still support the Triple Crown and other horse races. In baseball, the Triple Crown is awarded to a batter who leads the league in home runs, runs batted in, and batting average. Unlike the Triple Crown in horse racing, this feat is achieved without whips or drugs (ostensibly) and the player voluntarily participates in the sport. That is how all sports should be.
If thousands and thousands of baseball or football players died every year, there would be a deafening outcry. We must not remain silent about all the horses who’ve suffered and died during the Triple Crown and other horse races every year. People can help stop horse racing—and horse slaughter—by refusing to patronize horse races, working to ensure that racing regulations are reformed and enforced, lobbying against the construction of new tracks, and educating others about the tragic lives that the horses lead. To learn more, read PETA’s factsheet on horse racing. It’s time for the Triple Crown to take place in baseball only.