In 2015, thoroughbred American Pharoah, ridden by jockey Victor Espinoza, won the Triple Crown. He is the first horse to complete this feat in over thirty years, and only one of twelve since 1919. After his stunning victory, American Pharoah was retired from racing, and will live out his days in luxury standing at stud in Kentucky. It could be a long and easy retirement – the horse is only four years old, and barring an accident or illness, he could live to be 25 or 30, the average lifespan for a horse. It might seem odd that a racehorse that can win the Triple Crown has finished with his life’s work before he’s lived a quarter of his life, but that’s common in thoroughbred racing. Horses are raced young, heaped with expectations. American Pharoah is talented, and lucky. Many other horses fall by the wayside and don’t get a happy ending.
There are a lot of thoroughbreds racing in America, and not all racers can be winners. According to the Jockey Club, which has been maintaining records on thoroughbred breeding and racing in the United States for over a century, more than 20,000 thoroughbred foals were born and registered in 2015, which is about the average for the last five years. The majority of thoroughbreds go on to a racing career, or to other equestrian sport disciplines, where the payoffs can be huge. The Breeder’s Cup Classic, one of thoroughbred racing’s most important stakes, has a purse of $5 million, and in 2015, purses totaled more than $1 billion overall. However, for every winner of the Breeder’s Cup, there are 13 losers, a drama that is played out for all 40,000 races that happen annually in the US and Canada.
Very successful racers like American Pharoah have it made, but for a racehorse that fails to be successful on the track, the outlook is less rosy. While some thoroughbreds become studs or broodmares and make money breeding, farms send as many as 10,000 horses to auction each year, and they are likely to be slaughtered for meat. That means half of all foals produced are destined to end up killed. Although it might sound unpalatable to an American, consuming horse meat is natural in several countries, including France and Japan. The last horse slaughterhouses in the US closed in 2007, but horses can still be legally transported to Mexico or Canada where companies harvest and sell their meat. The ASPCA estimates that 150,000 horses are exported from the United States for food each year. Most racetracks do not endorse auctioning horses to kill buyers, but they don’t do much to stop it either. There are other options: around the country, there is a movement to rehabilitate off-track thoroughbreds (OTTBs) for other equestrian sports. But feeding, medicating, and boarding a horse can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars each month and there are many more horses that need a home than there are spaces to take them.
Even if a charity or new rider takes in an OTTB, there’s no guarantee that the horse will be in shape to be ridden. The rate of death and injury for racehorses, while declining overall, is still high. According to the 2015 report by the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, the rate of fatal injuries for racehorses over the last six years was about 2 in every 1,000 racing starts. With over 2 million starts analyzed, this means that over 4,000 horses have died from a racing injury since 2009. The statistics only counted horses that had died within 72 hours of sustaining the injury, and doesn’t account for those that had non-fatal injuries, those that died of complications later, or horses that have been injured or killed while training for a race.
Part of the problem is that horses are raced from a young age, before they reach are maturity. Futurities races, which are races for horses under five years old, make up some of the most important in the industry, including the Triple Crown races and Breeder’s Cup Classic. About 15% of all starting racehorses in any given year are only two years old. But horses’ bones aren’t fully grown until they are five or six, according to veterinarian Deb Bennet in a 2008 paper published on her website, Equine Studies.org. Horses are delicate creatures and damage to their legs is hard to recover from. Musculo-skeletal injuries make up 95% of fatalities in horses. Even if a horse’s legs are uninjured, other dangers lurk. The last bones to finish growing are those in the horse’s spine. A strained neck or back could leave the horse in pain until it can stretch and recover, but repeated damage to the back can make the horse unable to carry a rider, or any weight. Mares might have difficulty bearing a foal with a “slipped” back, and severe back damage can lead to the animal being put down.
It is also common to drug or medicate racehorses to improve their performance. In most racing countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, administering medication on the day of a race disqualifies the horse. Not so in North America, where trainers can legally dose horses the day of the race. For instance, over 90% of horses take Lasix, a medicine used to treat bleeding in the lungs, which is a common problem in racehorses. Bleeding in the lungs, which can result from high blood pressure during intense exercise, is probably not painful for the horse, but it can slow them down, and in rare, extreme cases has been linked to sudden death.
Advocates of using Lasix say it is necessary to protect horses’ welfare while they exert themselves in a race. However, most horses do not bleed badly enough to warrant a prescription, and Lasix has also been criticized as a performance-enhancing drug. Because of the drug’s diuretic properties, a horse might lose 10-20lbs of water weight in urine before a race while taking Lasix, which is a significant advantage in a sport where every pound carried by the horse counts. However, if a horse is given water it will gain the weight back before the race, so many trainers do not allow their horses to drink between taking Lasix and the race. Whether it enhances performance or not, this is cruel, and Lasix should not be administered as a stopgap to allow bleeding horses to compete if they are at significant risk.
Despite these issues, horse racing is here to stay. Racing brings in a lot of money for breeders and racetrack operators. It also has a strong cultural legacy. Societies with nomadic origins, such as those on the Arab peninsula, have always held horses in high esteem, and horse racing has been documented at the original Olympic Games, held between 700-400 BCE. Charles II of England offered the first known racing purse of £40 in the 17th century, beginning organized horse racing in Europe. When the British came to North America, they brought racing with them, and it is now celebrated in states like Kentucky, linked forever to the sport through the Kentucky Derby. It’s no wonder – horses are born to run, and they will compete in the wild with members of their herd to be the fastest. Different horses have different personalities, and some just love giving it their all around a ring or a track. I’ve ridden horses myself that have taken me on a wild ride, all for the joy of running.
However, economic successes and having historical roots does not mean that the racing industry shouldn’t be reformed. Sports that involve animals should make animal welfare their top priority. For the sake of the horses, it’s time to scale down. Reducing the amount of races run in this country will reduce demand for racehorses. Breeding fewer horses will reduce the amount of washed-up racers whose career goes from the track to abandonment and slaughter. Greater care should continue to be taken to prevent injuries, both on the track and off of it, and it should go without saying that medicating horses with drugs like Lasix to make them last longer should be completely banned. To facilitate better horse safety, horses that are trained to race – or do any equestrian sport – should only be ridden when they are mature enough to carry a rider. Bennet advocates that horses not be ridden until they are four, to allow for their bones to develop enough to carry the weight of a saddle and rider. There is plenty of work you can do with a horse before you ride it, including teaching it how to behave in a stall and trailer, and respect your commands and personal space.
Of course, injuries and accidents won’t go away – there will always be athletic injuries, especially with so many equine athletes running – but the racing industry has the ability and the responsibility to impose better standards. American Pharoah is living in a promised land, being shown off for fans and commanding the highest stud fee for an unproven, first-year stallion at $200 million. But three years from now, his children could be left in a field to starve if they don’t live up to the promise of his blue-blooded pedigree. The industry needs to reform, and it needs to do it soon, while the world is paying attention.