The sport of horse racing has evolved over the centuries from a primitive contest of speed and stamina to a spectacle that attracts huge crowds and enormous sums of money. But its fundamental concept has not changed: The horse that crosses the finish line first is deemed the winner.
A horse race starts with the horses lining up in their own starting gates, which are placed horizontally across the track at the chosen starting point. When the gate opens, the horses race out of their gates and begin running as hard as they can over a set distance. The goal is to get off to a fast start and save energy for the end of the race, called the home stretch.
After the race, the winning horse is rewarded with prize money. This can be anything from cash to a new saddle or other gear. The horses that finish in second and third also receive a certain amount of prize money. In addition, a winner’s jockey may be given a prize for his or her riding skill during the race.
To keep horses healthy and competitive, most are given a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs that mask injuries and artificially enhance performance. Some of these drugs are known to cause horses to bleed from their lungs, a condition called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. Horses that suffer from this can be put down.
Some horses are more prone to exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage than others, so their trainers will give them drugs that slow down the bleeding in their lungs and other organs. Other horses are given drugs to mask pain, make it easier for them to eat and drink and to keep them awake during races.
Despite these efforts, horses are routinely injured and even killed while in the throes of competition. The deaths of Eight Belles, the 2008 Kentucky Derby winner, and Medina Spirit, a Triple Crown contender in 2009, have prompted a reckoning of horse racing’s ethics and integrity.
The industry needs to change. That must begin by addressing its lack of an adequately funded, industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for all horses leaving the track. Otherwise, the sport will continue to hemorrhage horses into the slaughter pipeline. Many of these horses are bailed by independent nonprofit rescue groups that network, fundraise and work tirelessly to fight for the horse’s right to survive the for-profit business that created them. If not for these groups, the horses would face a much harsher fate, including being shipped abroad for slaughter, where they are charged arbitrary and sometimes outrageous ransoms for their freedom.