“Our horses are sick. Our thoroughbreds are thoroughly inbred. They are locomotives sitting atop toothpicks. They are fragile and friable, designed to run but not to recover from running. And each time they break down or wear out, we chalk it up to an individual horse’s shortcomings, rather than the decades-long decline of the entire breeding industry”.
— BARRY PETSCHY (Deadspin)
Bred for Death
Thousands of Thoroughbreds are bred for racing every year. Depending on the country, only 5% to 10% ever see a racecourse. What happens to the others? Unless they are lucky enough to find another career, they are disposed of, typically at a slaughterhouse.
Breeding Thoroughbreds became a greed-riddled business in the late 80’s and continued through the 90’s. It only abated when a sagging economy began to impact sales, and breeding of Thoroughbreds began to slacken.
According to Jockey Club statistics, the number has dropped precipitously over the last 20 to 30 years. 44,143 North American Thoroughbred foals were produced in 1990, 37,755 in 2000, 28,419 in 2010 and an estimated 21,500 in 2018 – down 24% since 2010 and 51% or over half the foal crop since 1990. The numbers have more or less stabilized since 2012 but on a slow downward trend in 2017 and 2018.
A normal book (mares bred to stallions) was typically 40-50 but skyrocketed to 140-150 during the boom years.
Even today, it is not uncommon for some stallions to cover 125 or more mares. In fact, in 2019, the stallions Justify and Mendelssohn led all stallions with 252 mares bred by each in 2019. Rounding out the top were Into Mischief, 241; Uncle Mo, 241; and Goldencents, 239.
This was and is great for stallion owners, but it floods the market with “mid-range” horses, despite the pedigree. Not all foals from champion racehorses have the same potential as their sires.
An estimated 10-15% of slaughter-bound horses are Thoroughbreds, roughly equivalent to the foal crop in any given year.
Dying to Race
Horses begin training or already racing when their skeletal systems are still growing and unprepared to handle the pressures of running on a hard track at high speeds.
Improved medical treatment and technological advancements have done little to remedy the plight of the racehorse.
Strained tendons or hairline fractures can be tough for veterinarians to diagnose, and the damage may go from minor to irreversible at the next race or workout.
Horses do not handle surgery well, as they tend to be disoriented when coming out of anesthesia, and they may fight casts or slings, possibly causing further injury.
Instead, seriously injured horses are put down in order to save their owners escalating veterinary fees.
Racehorses still mobile enough to load in a trailer are often sent to auction where they are bought by killer buyers who act as middlemen for horse slaughter plants. Some are handed over to killer buyers right at the track.
Numbers from the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database (EID) covering one-year periods show that for 2018, the aggregate rate (i.e. turf, dirt and synthetic tracks) of fatal injury was 1.68 per 1,000 starts, while in 2017 the corresponding rate was 1.61 per 1,000 starts.
In 2017 there were 323,183 starts and 303,014 starts in 2018 meaning that 521 and 509 horses respectively, died racing. Reporting is voluntary. Since the EID’s inception 109 racetracks have given data and in 2019, tracks accounting for approximately 98% of flat racing days are expected to contribute.
These numbers however, do not include deaths during morning workouts, training, deaths that occur off-site after an injury, or due to other incidences at the track that happen routinely. This would raise the death toll by hundreds. By its own admission the Jockey Club acknowledges that the EID tells only half of the story.
Moreover, the Jockey Club recognises that the analysis of the EID demonstrates that there are a multitude of factors that contribute to the risk of fatal injuries. In fact, the veterinarian and epidemiologist who performed the analysis stated that the focus should be on the medications present in horses during racing and training, transparency of veterinary records for all starters and the collection of injury data from morning training hours.
The reality is that the incidence of racing deaths is much more far-reaching than the current sources from the racing community provide. This has not only been flagged by The Jockey Club, but also painstakingly monitored by Patrick Battuello via FOIA requests and published on his Horseracing Wrongs website. Outside of the racing industry — that does not publicise concise records — this is, no doubt, the most comprehensive list of deaths available.
Each year there are at the very least 1,000 horses who die on racetracks around the nation.
The deaths recorded are on-site deaths only. Additionally, some states are known to withhold records, or claim they have no records of training deaths. So, these lists that roughly indicate 1,000 deaths each year, could easily and reasonably be doubled, with upwards of 2,000 kills per year.
Drugged to the End
“Finding an American racehorse trained on the traditional hay, oats, and water probably would be impossible,” commented one reporter.
Horses have, for years, been found with myriad performance-enhancing drugs in their systems. Many of these drugs still emerge and, along with the usual offenders, are used by unscrupulous trainers or veterinarians who seek to provide their horses an unfair competitive advantage in horse racing. These include, but are not limited to, the exotic options such as cobra, or poisonous frog venom for example, and other nefarious concoctions that act as nerve-blockers, or other drugs proven to have certain advantages in human physiology, yet not proven in the horse.
But, by far, it appears that the use of “therapeutics” (Class 4 drugs as per the ARCI Drug Classification Scheme that would be expected to have less potential to affect performance than those in Class 3) are in rampant use because they are legal and if administered at the correct times will fail to produce “positive” drug overages during racing events.
These include drugs such as corticosteroids (e.g. dexamethasone), relaxants with no CNS effects, and NSAIDS higher than established limits (e.g. “bute”, banamine). All of these drugs, when used to mask the signs of overexertion or injury, will predispose horses to injury.
Moreover, it is a common theme among some unprincipled trainers to “stack” these types of drugs such that they have a synergistic effect but will not test over the threshold, and so go undetected in drug testing administered after or before a race. And, with the advent of casino-style gambling operations, which increased the purses, this can encourage some trainers to race unfit animals. Probably more than most would like to believe.
It is challenging to estimate how prevalent these misdemeanours are since testing is far from universal. Regulators must constantly be alert to unethical chemists, and regulations are often weakly enforced depending on the racetrack. Additionally, new therapeutics with legitimate usage in veterinary medicine, as well as those for management of human ailments (despite any proven efficacy in the horse) exacerbate the problem for regulators when these drugs are exploited as performance enhancers in horses.
“There are always bad actors out there who reach for something in a bottle or tube to improve performance, rather than focusing on the training, fitness, and welfare of the horse.”
— Stephen Schumacher, DVM, chief administrator for US Equestrian’s Equine Drugs and Medication Program
This will not change unless the racing industry changes.
Horse racing has never experienced a year quite like 2019. A spate of deaths at Santa Anita, Keeneland, Churchill, and tracks in New York, together with a contentious finish in the Kentucky Derby that triggered a lawsuit, have left the sport in shambles. Let alone the recent discovery of a drug overage of Justify, last year’s Triple Crown winner, who tested positive for a banned substance after winning the Santa Anita Derby, the race in which he qualified to run in the Kentucky Derby.
Thirty horses died during Santa Anita’s last winter-spring meet, and more have succumbed since then. The carnage has not stopped, nor has the public’s scepticism of the sport and its merit. The outcome of the investigation of those deaths offers little condolence for those who care about the welfare of horses and the envisaged integrity of the racing industry.
“L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey’s nine-month investigation into the Santa Anita deaths did not find evidence of criminal animal cruelty. But it did note that toxicology reports revealed that a number of horses that died had a variety of anti-inflammatory drugs, sedatives and muscle relaxants in their systems. Although none were at levels that violated the horse racing board’s rules, it’s troubling that racing, for so long, has allowed horses to train and run — and die — with multiple drugs in their systems. The report also said that the necropsies showed some of the horses had pre-existing medical conditions but hadn’t displayed symptoms. (How could they with all those drugs in their systems?)”
— Los Angeles Times (Dec. 19, 2019)
The Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017 (HIA) was re-introduced in the United States House of Representatives in 2019, but there have been setbacks, most of which stem from racing industry obstructionists and their failure to support it for various reasons. For those who do support it, it is a means to preserve the sport’s integrity and reverse the negativity emanating from the public’s low opinion of what the sport has become.
The proposed federal HIA would establish an independent, private, non-profit, self-regulatory authority, overseen by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), to set and oversee nationwide rules, testing and enforcement on medications.
However, it isn’t without shortcomings. Essentially it would only accomplish two things; (1) the establishment of uniform medication rules and regulations across all racing jurisdictions and; (2) eliminate the administration of drugs on race day.
Unfortunately, it will not stop the widespread use of drugs to mask injury or enhance performance, nor will it be without direct influence from the horseracing industry. It leaves the details of drug regulation in control of the industry despite the fact that following decades of pledges to regulate drugs effectively, it has failed to do so.
Drugs damage not only the horses, but also the jockeys, the breeding industry and the bettors who are cheated and deceived when wagering on drugged horses.
The issue of drugs in horse racing has never been bigger. It’s time the NA racing industry wakes up to reality. Until the doping stops and greater safety for our iconic equines prevails, the question that emerges is whether horse racing should continue at all.
“We are in a crisis. I think we all know that. It threatens the very existence of our sport. Many people believe that they are staring at the abyss. The future of Thoroughbred racing and breeding is at stake. We have to do more to protect our athletes. We have to do more to get the cheaters and the abusers out of our sport”.
William M. Lear Jr, Vice Chairman, The Jockey Club
by JANE ALLIN | 12/30/2019