Op-ed: Horse racing is not just another sport

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Written by Patrick Battuello, and I am the founder/president of Horseracing Wrongs, the nation’s preeminent anti-racing organization. 

Through the force of brilliant marketing, we Americans are conditioned from birth to view horseracing as just another sport – indeed, “The Sport of Kings.” And there is no better manifestation of this than “The Run for the Roses,” “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” – The Kentucky Derby. But beneath this well-crafted facade lurks a sinister core, one that abuses and kills beautiful, intelligent, and sensitive animals.

Since 2014, Horseracing Wrongs has documented almost 10,000 deaths at U.S. racetracks. Our research, however, indicates that over 2,000 racehorses are killed across America every year – cardiac arrest, pulmonary hemorrhage, blunt-force head trauma, broken necks, severed spines, ruptured ligaments, shattered legs – over 2,000, that’s about six dead horses every single day.

And when not dying at the track, they’re dying at the abattoir: Two independent studies (as well as industry admissions) reveal that multiple thousands of spent or simply no-longer-wanted racehorses are bled-out and butchered – slaughtered, that is – every year. The whimsical names and cheering crowds must a bitter lifetime ago.

But it’s not just the killing. There is, too, the everyday cruelty. First, would-be racehorses are usually sold (by their breeders) into the system at the tender age of one – mere babies. Now under the yoke of their first trainer, the grinding begins almost immediately. While a horse does not reach full musculoskeletal maturity till the age of six, the typical racehorse is thrust into intensive training at 18 months, and raced at two – the rough equivalent of a first-grader. In the necropsies, we see time and again 4-, 3-, even 2-year-old horses dying with chronic conditions like osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease – clear evidence of the incessant pounding these pubescent/adolescent bodies are forced to absorb.

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When not out on the track training or racing, the horses are, as a rule, kept locked – alone – in tiny 12×12 stalls for over 23 hours a day, making a mockery of the industry claim that “horses are born to run,” and a cruelty all the worse for being inflicted on innately social animals like horses. Prominent equine veterinarian Dr. Kraig Kulikowski likens this to keeping a child locked alone in a 4×4 closet for over 23 hours a day. Imagine that. Relatedly, practically all the horse’s natural instincts and desires are thwarted, creating an emotional and mental suffering that is brought home with crystal clarity in the stereotypies commonly seen in confined racehorses: cribbing, wind-sucking, bobbing, weaving, pacing, digging, kicking, even self-mutilation.

Because racehorses are valuable assets, the racing people thoroughly control every moment of their lives – control that is often effected through force and intimidation: pushing, shoving, pulling, yanking, goading, prodding, yelling, screaming; and through the tools of their trade: lip chains, tongue ties, eye blinders, mouth “bits” – which, says Dr. Robert Cook, an expert on equine physiology, make the horses feel like they’re suffocating when being forced to run at breakneck speeds – and, of course, whips. On that, the very public flogging administered to racehorses would land a person in jail if done to his dog in the park. But at the track, it’s but part of the tradition.

Finally, there is the commodification. By law, racehorses are literal chattel – pieces of property to be bought, sold, traded, and dumped whenever and however their people decide. To make matters worse, they are not even afforded the protections, woefully inadequate as most are, of animal-cruelty statutes, meaning an owner or trainer can run his horse into the ground – yes, even to death – with virtual impunity. What’s more, the average racehorse will change hands multiple times over the course of his so-called career, adding anxiety and stress to an already anxious, stressful existence. This near-constant shuffling among trainers, grooms, vets, barns, tracks, and states is a primary reason why some 90% of active racehorses suffer from chronic ulcers.

Truth is, in regard to how the relative animals are treated, there is not a whit of difference between dogracing and horseracing. In fact, one could argue that horseracing is worse because of slaughter. But while one form is all but dead – there are currently just two dog tracks left in the entire country; even more telling, dogracing is outright prohibited on moral grounds in 42 states – the other continues along merrily under the banner of “sport.” It is high time we right this wrong. Horseracing is animal cruelty. Horseracing is animal killing. Horseracing must end.

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