In 2008, a horse named Eight Belles collapsed with two broken ankles just after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby. She was euthanized directly on the track. After her death, the thoroughbred industry organized safety and drug testing committees to make the sport safer.
But industry practices continue to put both horses and riders in harm's way. On average, 24 horses a week die at racetracks in the United States. Many horses that break down run with injuries masked by injected painkillers.
New York Times reporters Walt Bogdanich and Joe Drape have conducted an in-depth, monthslong investigation looking at the American racing industry, which, they write, is "still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation and a fatal breakdown rate that remains far worse than in most of the world."
They report that since 2009, more than 6,600 horses have broken down or showed signs of injury. An additional 3,800 horses have tested positive for illegal drugs. That figure underestimates the problem because few horses are tested for substances. At least 3,600 horses have died either racing or training at state-regulated tracks.
To obtain these figures, Bogdanich and Drape purchased data from 150,000 races, then searched for keywords indicating that horses had been injured.
"We spent months collecting these data, double-checking it, weeding out possibly duplicates," Bogdanich tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "It was an extraordinarily difficult process, but we thought it was worth it. And, indeed, it revealed certain truths about racing that up until that point had not been publicly known."
Their key findings included learning that quarter horses that race shorter distances on tracks broke down, on average, about 29 percent more than racing thoroughbreds. Cheaper horses also broke down more often than more expensive ones.
"We then started to look at the relationship between the purse money and the values of the horse," says Bogdanich. "Basically, when you have a relatively cheap horse and a huge prize, the risk and reward gets out of balance. And if there's little risk and a huge reward, owners are going to take chances that they otherwise wouldn't do and end up putting rider and animal at risk."
Trainers who illegally inject injured horses full of painkillers so they can race are rarely fined or suspended. The pain medications can mask existing injuries, so the horses pass their pre-race inspection and run faster than they otherwise would. Other horses are injected with performance enhancing substances — ranging from cobra venom to blood doping agents — that cannot be detected by labs.
"There's a lot of these guys in the back stretch who, if somebody says this will make your horse run faster, they'll give it a shot," says Bogdanich.
Drape adds: "There's a fear among trainers that if their competitors are using something that may or may not work, [they then think] 'Well, I'm going to be at a disadvantage, so I'm going to use it, too.' And I think that's driving a good part of the use of these improper drugs."
Bogdanich and Drape also looked into how the addition of casino gambling at many tracks has made racing an even more dangerous sport. The addition of slots has meant that racetracks have started to increase their purse sizes, which has encouraged trainers to race horses that would otherwise be unfit.
"The horsemen are tempted to just act badly, to not take into consideration the health of their horse," says Bogdanich. "You can either turn out a horse for two weeks and let him heal on his own, or you can give him a few shots and run him back in seven days and maybe hit the board in third place and get enough money to pay for three more months in training. So those were the sort of choices that were offered by the expanded casino purses."
Cheaper horses were often the most vulnerable, Drape says, particularly when they were put in races for increasingly larger pots of money.
"When you have less expensive horses, it [still] costs money to feed them, to care for them, to shelter them," he says. "And there are unfortunately, we are told, some owners who say, 'Well, why do I want to spend all this money on a cheap horse? Let's throw him out there. He may win. He may not. And if he doesn't win and he breaks down, then it's not my problem anymore.' "
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