On Saturday morning, 20 horses will run in the Kentucky Derby and ONE will win. Let me be a little more specific: Out of approximately 35,000 registered Thoroughbreds, 20 three-year old horses, who have been in training since they were 12 months or younger, will be running faster than is safe for their bodies. These horses will be at a high risk for bone fractures and bruising.
It’s not necessarily that I am against horse racing… in theory. Racing is a time-honored tradition, and I see nothing wrong with it- in theory. Unfortunately, in practice, the racing industry is horribly corrupt, breeding literally tens of thousands of horses per year without thought for their lives after their short racing career. The Thoroughbred industry is one of several reasons why we currently have more horses than there is currently a market for in the United States, helping to fuel the slaughter industry in Canada and Mexico. While American focuses on these 20 horses, I am wondering: what happened to the other 34,980 horses?
I believe that the racing industry can be rehabilitated, but only under duress. If the racing and Thoroughbred industry is truly interested in serving the horses and the public, however, they will consider adopting these changes:
1. Separate the Jockey Club from the Thoroughbred Registry
There is no way for the Thoroughbred Registry to have any power over the future of the breed while under control of the Jockey Club, and it is in the Jockey Club’s best interest to continue to further the racing industry, not to continue to further the BREED. Years ago, Thoroughbreds used to be a horse of choice for almost any discipline. Currently, however, people are moving to other breeds. We have the ability to breed Thoroughbreds for disciplines such as jumping, dressage, trail, etc., but instead, we continue to breed for one main purpose: racing. While some of these horses can be retrained for other careers, the majority are so broken down or so specifically bred that they cannot compete with warmbloods or other breeds in the show ring. The Jockey Club is a racing organization; the Thoroughbred breed should encompass so much more. Separating the two could help the breed by focusing on the multiple disciplines in which Thoroughbreds can excel, the racing industry only being one.
2. Stop racing babies
Horses don’t stop growing until they are six years old. The Kentucky Derby, however, races three-year olds. The horses need about a year of training, and then a year in which they are raced so they can qualify for the Derby, which means that they have someone riding them less than a year old! Have you ever seen a picture of a yearling? They are horribly juvenile, both in the mind and in the body. By training these horses much, much too early puts an undue amount of stress on their legs and ankles, which leads to breakdowns when they are young, and early lameness when they are older. But the biggest issue is that the breeders don’t care- as long as the horse is fast for a short amount of time, they will continue to breed horses with physical defects, and they will continue to race horses without thought for their long-term career.
Britain does not start racing horses until three years-old, which I still believe is too young, but it does give the horses at least one more year of growth. Why Americans have to race horses so young is completely beyond my comprehension.
3. Have the medical records follow the horse
All racehorses have a tattoo, and I believe that in addition to, or instead of, this tattoo, all horses should be microchipped, and the veterinary information should be attached to this chip. Right now, a horse can be diagnosed with a devastating injury, but they owners can sell the horse to a new owner without disclosing this info. The horse can then be raced or made to compete with an injury that can cause permanent lameness. This is horrible for the horse, and for the new owners, who now have a lame horse. Oftentimes the horse will end up at the auction, and possibly with a killer buyer.
I believe that all veterinary info for racehorses should stay with the horse. I have been told by vets that it is a conflict of interest to disclose veterinary info from previous owners, but the truth is that if the racing industry really is sincere about the health of the horses, and honest in wishing full disclosure, they will agree to such an idea.
4. Drug test every horse, every race
It is no secret in the racing industry that horses are given illegal drugs. These drugs are used not only to increase performance, but also to mask pain. Approximately 10% of the horses tested at a trial period at Del Mar in 2013 tested positive for drugs. A drug test will show the use of most of these drugs, so it is confusing as to why every horse is not tested every single race. Would this be expensive? Sure. Would it help to stop the corruption that permeates the industry? I believe it will help.
The industry is completely incapable of policing itself; corruption and greed fuels this industry. Just last month, four veterinarians were arrested for drugging horses before races for over twenty years! Considering the amount of horses who do test positive for drugs, it seems that the practice of drugging horses is more the norm than the exception. Veterinarians who are ethical often will leave the track because they are disheartened in watching the trainers over-medicate and over-train the horses, eventually breaking them down. The result is often either the horse’s death by euthanasia, or a trip to the auction, which usually ends up being death at a slaughterhouse.
The use of detention barns, which is used in harness racing, would also help reduce the amount of performance/pain drugs that are given to the horses before racing. In a detention barn, the horses are stabled in a special barn that is under constant surveillance two days before the race. Having proof of milkshaking or otherwise giving drugs to horses would go a long way to stopping this pattern. So would permanently banning any trainer AND owner whose horse tested positive for drugs. Ban one or two trainers/owners, and see how quickly the rest of the group cleans up their act.
5. Register every horse
We recently rescued Brutus, a Thoroughbred out of Florecita and by Mud Route. At least, that’s what the previous owner told us; this guy was never registered, probably due to the fact that his right foot turns out. Not registering foals is common in the Thoroughbred industry, as breeders will wait to register their foals to ensure that the foal is not going to have any major defects. Unfortunately, this is deceit at its finest; people pay stud fees based upon the foals that are currently registered. People breed their mares to the stallions believing that the foals who are registered are the culmination of the foals produced. If the foals like Brutus are not registered, however, no one knows that there are foals with conformation or other issues. The breeders are literally lying through omission.
Not registering horses also leaves the horse at a disadvantage; having papers on a horse gives us insight to the horse’s heritage and confirms the horse’s age. We have also found that registered horses often have a better advantage at being adopted than those without papers.
Another “dirty secret” of the Thoroughbred industry is that of the nurse mare foals. In this horrible practice, an expensive mare’s foal is taken from her and given to a “nurse mare” so she can be bred again immediately. Unfortunately, for a mare to take a nurse foal, she must be bred so she will give milk. Her biological foal is usually taken from her at approximately a week old, sometimes killed immediately, sometimes slowly starved to death so his hide can be used for leather. This is unconscionable on so many levels: first of all, two foals are being taken from their mothers within days of their births. One foal is brutally killed for no actual reason, whereas the other is raised by a surrogate mother, who is constantly bred and has to go through the emotional pain of having her foal taken from her, year after year after year. The more “expensive” mare is bred over and over as well, which is very difficult on her physically, and she also has to have her babies taken from her every single year. There are some organizations who will rescue these nurse mare foals; these organizations, however, are not supported by the racing industry. The racing industry is completely willing to turn a blind eye to these atrocities because for the industry the bottom line- money- is what is most important.
The horses should be what is most important.
I will not be watching the Kentucky Derby. If you are thinking about watching, please think about the fact that these horses who are thundering down the track were being ridden while they were still supposed to be babies. Wonder what their future will hold, for both the winners and the losers. And think about the other thousands of horses who did not make it, who are going to be tossed aside for a new crop of potential horses next year. That mint julep doesn’t go down as well when you realize that the thousands of horses who did not make it may be shipped to auction and possible slaughter.