In the run-up to the Belmont Stakes tomorrow, I participated in a discussion yesterday on public radio about the rampant doping of racehorses and the need for reform within an industry that has failed to take responsibility for its problems and runs through its athletes as if they are expendable commodities. The fatality statistics alone are staggering: According to a series of reports from Joe Drape of The New York Times, every week 24 horses die on U.S. racetracks. Jockeys are also being injured and killed at unacceptably high rates. No other sport would tolerate such a high fatality rate.
That toll excludes the horses who don’t break down, but nevertheless don’t make it in the sport. Of the 25,000 thoroughbreds bred each year, far too many are re-routed from the stable to trucks that take them to auctions and then to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, often after a long and perilous journey. I wrote about this problem yesterday in Newsday, and specifically about the slaughter of more than 100,000 healthy American horses every year, for resale as meat slabs to foreign diners.
It’s shocking that so many American racehorses are sent to slaughter, because so many of them are given drugs that have long been deemed unfit for human consumption. They are neither fit for the track nor for the dinner table.
Doping is done on race day to enhance their performance or to mask injuries and to get unsound horses on the track. Some of the biggest names in training, such as Rick Dutrow and Doug O’Neill, are chronic violators of the modest, state-based anti-drugging rules. Doping horses for racing is more dangerous today than ever because breeding practices – which select for speed and champagne-glass legs – make the horses less sturdy and more vulnerable to breakdowns than they were even 10 or 20 years ago. Our horse racing tracks are turning into crash sites.
Right now, regulation of this industry is balkanized, with each of 38 racing jurisdictions having its own set of rules. They allow different medications, varying levels of permissible medications, different penalties for violations, different rules on which horses are tested for drugs, and different laboratories to do the testing. Without one single regulating body, racehorse owners and trainers who are barred from racing in one jurisdiction can simply move their business elsewhere.
This is a national industry, and like football or baseball or other major American sports – perhaps more so, since the equine athletes cannot speak up for themselves – we need national standards to stop unethical trainers and veterinarians from doping horses to improve their chances of winning.
With so many tracks owned by major casinos, there are now very high purses for the owners of winning horses. That results in many owners and trainers gambling it all on their horses – by putting injured horses on the track in order to recoup their investment in the animal on the off-chance that the horse may win. At dozens of lower-tier tracks in the United States, horses are racing too frequently, racing with drugs in their system, and being put at risk by people who care about profits and not the horses or the jockeys.
Leaders within the industry, and lawmakers passionate about the issue, need to come together and find a common set of reforms they can rally around and convince Congress to embrace. The HSUS has joined The Coalition for Horseracing Integrity in order to push that discussion forward. The coalition is pushing for federal legislation that would establish a uniform set of rules, testing procedures, and penalties, created by the non-profit U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the same agency that monitors Olympic sports in the United States, to rid racing of unethical drugging and doping of horses. Such legislation is crucial to protect the animals and jockeys in an industry that cannot and will not regulate itself.
Unless the key parties come together in Congress and within the industry, we’ll see more stagnation and more problems.
I first wrote about abuses in horse racing 25 years ago. I’m sorry to report that the situation is, at least in some ways, worse than ever. Congress must act, but don’t expect that to happen until the industry itself makes the case for reform. If they do not, we’ll continue to see an erosion of public confidence and empty seats at tracks throughout the United States. Why bet on a sport where the fix is in?