jockeys in colorful silks riding race horses

How Does Thoroughbred Racing Have to Change?

jockeys in colorful silks riding race horses
Credit:DreamTemp at Pixabay

Racehorse Deaths May Lead to the Death of Racing

Thoroughbred racing is a beloved tradition and an exciting sport, but recent events have put its future in question. With a spate of horse deaths, track closures, and drugging controversies, the industry is in trouble. It must take steps to address these issues to improve its tarnished rep, but more importantly, to ensure the safety and well-being of the horses.

Just prior to the 2023 running of one of the most famous (and therefore most watched) horse races, The Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs was the scene for a frightening number of horse deaths, as follows:

  • Wild on Ice: 3 yr old gelding, fractured left hock during training workout
  • Take Charge Briana: 3 yr old filly injured during turf race
  • Code of Kings: 3 yr old gelding broke neck when flipped over three times in saddling paddock
  • Chloe’s Dream: 3 yr old gelding rt front knee fracture during race
  • Freezing Point: 3 yr old colt suffered left front biaxial sesmoid ankle fracture during race
  • Parents Pride: 4 yr old filly collapsed and died after race, cause of death yet unknown
  • Chasing Artie: 5 yr old colt (stable mateto Parents pride) also collapsed and died after race, cause of death yet unknown
  • Here Mi Song: taken off in ambulance after 10th race on Derby Day

The most pressing issue is the number of horse deaths on the track. Has it escalated sharply of late or are we simply hearing about it more now?  In the last several years, the racing industry has come under fire for the high rate of fatal injuries suffered by horses. This has led to calls for increased regulation and oversight of the industry, including the implementation of new safety protocols and the use of advanced technology to monitor the health and well-being of the horses. Others have called for an outright ban on horse racing. This is a complicated issue, which begs the question:

Why Are Racehorses Dying?

Track Conditions

One of the main reasons for the high rate of horse deaths is the poor state of some of the tracks. Many of these tracks are old and in need of repair, with uneven surfaces and inadequate drainage systems. These conditions can cause horses to slip, trip, or fall, leading to serious injuries or even death. According to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s (NTRA) Safety and Integrity Alliance, all tracks have to be inspected and meet certain standards for accreditation. But recently Laurel Racecourse in Maryland was closed after several horse fatalities, citing the condition of the track. To address this issue, perhaps the industry needs to invest in upgrading and modernizing the tracks, ensuring that they are safe and suitable for racing, and put into place a more rigorous periodic inspection system before the tracks fall into disrepair.

Too Young to Run: Race Horses Are Babies

Racing horses at a young age, before their bones are fully developed, is a controversial issue in the racing industry. Many animal welfare advocates argue that this practice is cruel and increases the risk of injury and death for the horses. Horses typically reach full skeletal maturity between the ages of five and six, but many race as two-year-olds.

So why don’t they wait and race them when they are older? One reason is money, but there are considerations. The reason the racing industry cannot wait and push back the age of racehorses to five or six is multifaceted. One factor is that many horses do not continue racing beyond their three or four-year-old season, and owners and trainers may want to maximize their earning potential during this relatively short window. Additionally, there is a significant financial investment involved in breeding and training racehorses, and owners and breeders may be unwilling to wait several more years before their horses can begin racing and earning money.

Another factor is the cultural and traditional norms within the industry. Many horse racing fans enjoy the excitement of watching young horses compete, and some of the sport’s most prestigious races, such as the Kentucky Derby and other races in the Triple Crown, are exclusively for three-year-olds. Pushing back the age of racehorses would mean a significant change in the sport’s traditions and could impact its popularity and fanbase.

On the other hand, some racing enthusiast and breeders claim racing horses at a younger age makes the horses stronger and better able to sustain the physical stress of racing and extend their careers. In an article published February 9, 2021, in the National Library of Medicine, authors Logan and Nielsen put this controversial issue under a scientific microscope. The research entitled Training Young Horses: The Science Behind the Benefits, examines whether race training at can early age (2 years old) is detrimental or beneficial to the animal’s career and growth. This article takes an exhaustive look at epidemiological studies, effects on bone and articular cartilage, tendons and ligaments, as well as injury prevention. The conclusion, however, still leaves the issue unresolved and states:

In young animals, the optimal amount of exercise which is ideal for musculoskeletal strength and performance of function during maturity is not entirely known. Given that this optimal amount of exercise is not yet determined, prescribed exercise during growth is controversial to many. However, it has been shown in numerous studies that confinement and the subsequent lack of loading, lead to weaker tissues and potential loss of function of bone, articular cartilage, and tendons and that exercise during growth aids in the longevity of animal health and performance. Further, medical attempts to decrease pain to allow a horse to train through an injury, instead of providing adequate time to allow an injury to heal, may greatly increase tissue damage—putting horses, and riders at risk.

Drugging: Detection, Enforcement, and Masking

The drugging controversy has cast a dark cloud over the sport of horse racing. Indeed, the Thoroughbred Daily News (TDN) posted an extensive list of horse drugging scandals...ones that are known. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is widespread in the industry, with some trainers and owners willing to risk the health and well-being of their horses in pursuit of victory. This is a serious problem that must be addressed through increased regulation and enforcement, including more frequent drug testing and stiffer penalties for those who violate the rules.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs in horse racing is a major concern that has plagued the industry for many years. The drugs used can vary widely, with some designed to improve speed and endurance, while others are intended to mask pain or fatigue. Some common drugs used in horse racing include anabolic steroids, blood doping agents, and stimulants like caffeine or amphetamines.

One of the biggest challenges in detecting drug use in horse racing is the use of masking drugs, which are designed to hide the presence of other drugs in a horse’s system. This can make it difficult for racing officials to detect and prevent drug use, especially with the emergence of new drugs and masking agents that are constantly being developed by those looking to gain an unfair advantage in the sport. Also, regulations vary by state. For an example, view this (very complicated) list providing guidance on specific drugs and prohibitions prior to race day for horses racing in New York.

To combat this issue, racing officials are constantly updating and evolving their testing methods to keep up with new drugs and masking agents. This includes the use of more sensitive and sophisticated testing equipment, as well as the development of new techniques and protocols for detecting and identifying prohibited substances.

The punishment for drugging in horse racing can vary depending on the severity of the infraction and the jurisdiction in which it occurs. In some cases, a trainer or owner may face fines, suspension, or even a lifetime ban from the sport. In other cases, horses found to have been drugged may be disqualified from their races or stripped of any prize money or awards earned. To detect drug use in horses, racing officials typically use a combination of blood and urine testing. Samples are taken from horses before and after races, and tested for the presence of prohibited substances.

Drug Masking

The use of masking drugs in horse racing is a common practice that involves the administration of other substances to hide the presence of illegal drugs in a horse’s system. Masking drugs work by altering the chemical composition of a horse’s urine or blood sample, making it more difficult for testing officials to detect banned substances.

Some of the commonly used masking drugs in horse racing include diuretics, which increase urine production and can help to dilute the concentration of banned substances in a horse’s system. Other drugs that are used as masking agents include tranquilizers, which can mask the pain or discomfort associated with the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and bronchodilators, which can be used to improve respiratory function in horses but can also mask the presence of other drugs.

One of the challenges in detecting the use of masking drugs is that they can also have legitimate therapeutic uses in horses. For example, diuretics are sometimes used to treat legitimate heart conditions, while bronchodilators may be prescribed to horses with respiratory issues. This means that testing officials must carefully evaluate each case to determine whether a drug was administered for a legitimate medical reason or to mask the presence of banned substances.Thus, many of these drugs are prohibited a certain number of days before race day.

To combat the use of masking drugs in horse racing, racing officials are constantly updating their testing protocols to identify new substances and techniques used by trainers and owners to cheat. This includes the use of more sensitive testing equipment and the development of new detection methods that can identify substances that were previously undetectable. The use of illegal drugs and masking drugs in horse racing is a significant challenge that threatens the integrity of the sport and the welfare of horses.

Racing’s Hay-day Has Passed

Where are the Secretariats, Seabiscuits, and Seattle Slews?

We need another Horse Hero to rally around.

Speaking of the survival of racing, another challenge facing the industry is the closure of some tracks due to financial difficulties. Since 2000 over 40 horse racing tracks have shuttered. Many smaller tracks are struggling to stay afloat, with declining attendance and revenues. To address this issue, the industry must find ways to support and sustain these smaller tracks, perhaps through the use of subsidies or other financial incentives.

The closure of tracks due to a lack of interest is a growing concern within the racing industry. One of the reasons for this trend is that horse racing is no longer the popular sport–and certainly not the family outing– it once was. In the past, racing was a major form of entertainment, with large crowds flocking to tracks across the country to watch their favorite horses compete. The legendary horse Seabiscuit, for example, drew crowds of over 50,000 people to his races in the 1930s.

However, over the years, the popularity of horse racing has waned, and it is no longer a go-to destination for families and fans of all ages. There are several reasons for this decline, including the rise of other forms of entertainment. Additionally, the image of horse racing has been tarnished by issues such as horse deaths, drugging controversies, collapsing infrastructure of venues, and concerns about animal welfare.

The decline in popularity has been reflected in the size of crowds at racing events, with many tracks struggling to attract the same level of attendance and revenue that they did in the past. This has led to the closure of several tracks and put the future of others in doubt. To address this issue, the racing industry must find ways to adapt and evolve–to make the sport more appealing and accessible to a new generation of fans. This may involve greater use of technology, social media, and other forms of digital marketing to reach younger audiences, as well as investing in the modernization and renovation of tracks to create a more enjoyable and engaging experience for fans. But where is all this money going to come from?

So Does Horse Racing Have a Future? What Will it Look Like?

Does horse racing have a future or will it go the way of dog racing and be abolished? It seems the future of Thoroughbred racing is at a crossroads. The industry must take decisive action to address the issues of horse deaths, poor tracks, track closures, and drugging controversies and at the same time find a means of attracting new fans. Failure to do so could lead to a further decline in attendance and revenue, as well as increased scrutiny and criticism from the public and media. Some theorize that racing will undergo a huge “class divide” with the small tracks and family-run trainers going out of business while the mega-rich owners carry on and take over the sport entirely. This prediction has the little guy pushed out of racing along with the local tracks and only the “few and favored” continuing, thus making racing truly “The Sport of Kings.”

For the Sake of the Horses!

What do you think? I know many of these issues are hotly debated. I have friends who are wonderful horsemen involved in racing and others who are vehemently opposed to it. If it is possible, it would be beneficial to have a civilized debate on the problems and how to address them. We must do this for the sake of the horses.


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