Horse racing deaths at Pimlico remind us of hazards of largely deregulated sport

By on May 23, 2016 with 13 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

With American Pharoah in 2015 becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed accomplished that feat 37 years ago, there was a buzz in the run-up to the Preakness about whether the previously undefeated Nyquist could come one big step closer to replicating the biggest accomplishment in the sport. Yet Nyquist’s third-place finish, losing to Exaggerator and Cherry Wine, wasn’t the worst news of the day.

The big news for animal welfare advocates came after two fatalities on the track. Homeboykris, the winner of one race, collapsed from a heart attack as he was being walked back to the barn. Only minutes earlier, he had been standing in the winner’s circle. The second horse, Pramedya, was euthanized on the track after stumbling and fracturing her front leg on the turf track in Baltimore.

It doesn’t appear that doping contributed to these horrible outcomes. Roy and Gretchen Jackson owned Pramedya, and they are both strong believers in not using performance enhancing drugs on their horses. The horse who likely suffered a heart attack, Homeboykris, was the victim of a rare occurrence among race horses, and the owner and trainer have offered to make public the medical records, showing a level of transparency that I applaud.

But both cases remind us of the fragility of these animals, and how there are inherent risks in the enterprise of racing.

The risk is compounded when the horses are doped up, raced too young, and bred for champagne-glass legs (valuing speed rather than durability) — all of which make them more susceptible to breakdowns on the track.

These incidents happened to two horses who weren’t being doped, and they’re unfortunately an anomaly in that way – doping is widespread in the racing industry, and there is no national regulatory authority for racing.

Doping is typically utilized on race day to enhance the horses’ performance or to mask injuries and to get unsound horses on the track – a shameful practice in our society, and one that is counterproductive to building a humane economy. Some of the biggest names in training, such as Rick Dutrow – who trained Homeboykris in the past for a previous owner – and Doug O’Neill, trainer of the favorite, Nyquist, are chronic violators of the modest, state-based anti-drugging rules. America’s horse-racing tracks, all too often, 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 prevent 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 more about profits than the horses or the jockeys.

Many leaders within the industry, including the Jacksons and The Jockey Club, are coming together to 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 (USADA), 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 has proven it cannot and will not regulate itself.

We should not need breakdowns and horse deaths to trigger reform. We have plenty of information now to take action and put USADA in charge of running an anti-doping program on American racing tracks. For this sport to retain credibility with the American public, and not be viewed as allowing a free-for-all when it comes to safety and humane treatment standards, Congress needs to act before it finishes work this year.

End widespread doping of thoroughbred racehorses »

Equine, Humane Economy, Public Policy (Legal/Legislative)

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  1. David Bernazani says:

    This may sound un-American, but I say let’s do away with horse racing altogether. Horse racing is not a “sport” like any other, in that its main function is to provide something for gamblers to bet on. With casinos becoming legal in so many places in the US these days, there is no need to keep this antiquated and unethical enterprise going.
    Race horses today are overbred and routinely drugged, and pushed beyond their limits. On average, 24 horses die on U.S. racetracks every WEEK. This senseless industry of death has no place in the new humane economy.

  2. Barbara Griffith says:

    Not to mention that the thousands of these horses end up on a truck headed for slaughter in either Canada or Mexico. Some tracks have laws against selling a race horse to a killer buyer from the track but it will not stop them from leaving the track and doing their dirty work offsite. At least they can make a few bucks selling the crippled up racehorse. Sometimes they are spotted in a kill pen at a auction and are bought by a rescue when they are sent through the auction ring they can sometimes be bought directly from the killer buyer. These owners hide what they are doing from the public.
    It is the same thing with different breeds of horses be it a quarter horses or any other breed. What generally happens to the brood mares from these over breeders is that the mares spend years of their lives in foal constantly producing a foal ever year until they are either to old or their health gives out, do you know how they are repaid by the owners?? Most of them are sold down the river to slaughter either by the owner calling a known kill buyer locally or sending them to a auction. Many of these horses could be retrained as saddle horses or kept as pasture pets. They are not wild they are gentle animals that could find another home.

    • David Bernazani says:

      Barbara: Yes, the whole ugly industry is rotten, and every aspect of it needs to either be overhauled and highly regulated, or sent packing.

  3. Annoula Wylderich says:

    Whether it’s horse racing, rodeos, or other forms of entertainment that involve exploiting these animals for our amusement, it’s a travesty. We built our country on the backs of these majestic animals, and it’s an abject betrayal to be treating them in such horrible ways.

  4. Rachel Simpson says:

    The Thoroughbred horse-racing industry is, for me, a horrible conflict. I love the Thoroughbred horse, and have since I was old enough to know what one was. I worked in a horse boarding barn where many lay-ups from a local race track to came to rest, usually because of a lameness issue. I love the horses, and love to see them run, it’s breathtaking, but at the same time, I hate horse-racing. Way too many beautiful young horses are broken and die on the tracks every single day. And too many get sent to slaughter because they are either lame, or can’t run fast enough to earn their keep. They start racing them way too young, when they are only 2 years old, and their skeleton and musculo-skeletal system in nowhere near being fully mature. And previous posters are correct, they are being bred for speed, not for bone or stamina. They used to be bred for good bone, but not any more. I’ve seen Thoroughbreds that I would be afraid to ride, because they look so delicate! Teacup size hoofs, and so slight and thin! And I am not a big person! It’s a very sad situation, and I agree that racing should either be banned, or there should be some big changes in the rules, such as not even beginning to race a horse until he or she is at least 4 years old (or older!), but whose going to want to pay for food and board for a horse that’s doing nothing all those years?? I would hate to see the end of the Thoroughbred breed, but I believe that with the demise of racing, that’s exactly what would happen over time.

    • David Bernazani says:

      The use of other species in entertainment, especially those that routinely cause injury and death, have no place in the 21st century.

  5. Elaine Hutzelman says:

    All horse racing should be banned in this country. It is using horses for entertainment, just like the circus, rodeos, and all events using animals, in addition to horses.They were not put on this earth to entertain us. They have their own purposes for living and not what greedy humans dictate to line their pockets.

  6. Doris Muller says:

    This issue is not about the victims, it is about consequences when humans lack a conscience, and, in this context, their behavior is allowed by law.

    While the Jackson’s can be applauded for not using performance enhancing drugs and they demonstrate a good level of transparency, they are, yet, no better than any other horse racing addict. Since they have been in the racing business for some time, that indicates their lack of ignorance to the multitude of serious risks to animals used as factory widgets to support the owner’s addiction for wanting to *win* and to gamble. There is no reasonable excuse to use animals in such trashy fashion! The animal racing industry is a vile, vicious corrupt, legal animal abusing business. It’s only purpose is feeding the insatiable appetite of the human predator who finds nothing wrong with his behavior when the events fulfill a satiation for his addiction and his entertainment.

    As far as I’m concerned, the Jackson’s and other like them are the worst of the worst because they justify the horrors by claiming they love their horses, and they do not indulge in *some* common absurdities–what a joke!

  7. Paul McGarry says:

    I find it interesting that Wayne is not calling for the complete shut-down of the industry given the stats, unregulated nature, etc.. He’s only calling for better oversight and ethical practices. Could it be that he feels if the horse racing industry is overhauled, it could humanely exist in our society? I’m perplexed….

  8. Joy Aten says:

    I find it very perplexing that Mr. Pacelle/HSUS calls for “reform” of this multi-billion dollar gambling industry instead of working towards its long-overdue demise! Isn’t the HSUS opposed to dog racing?…what is the difference other than the species being exploited? Horse racing isn’t a “sport”. The horses are not consenting “athletes”. And the lives of racehorses are anything but natural – in fact, the majority of racehorses run in low-level claiming races which are the backbone of this industry…the “cheap claimers” are passed from owner to owner, something an animal that craves routine finds incredibly stressful. They run with drugs in their systems (at least 26 drugs are legal!), existing injuries, and many end their “careers” at the KB-attended auctions and finally, the slaughterhouse.

    Horse racing kills a minimum of nearly 1,000 horses per year. Minimum. Please open these links to see the documented kills.

    Does the HSUS support horse racing because Joe DeFrancis, a former Maryland Jockey Club executive, has the HSUS as a client of his consulting firm? Whatever the reason, it is questionable, at best, that an organization that claims to battle for animal rights chooses to support an industry that DAILY strips those rights from sentient beings, the magnificent horse.

  9. John Scheib says:

    Mr Pacelle, you write: “This is a national industry, and like football or baseball or other major American sports…”


    “Only one NFL player has ever died during a game – Chuck Hughes 1971. Only one MLB player has ever died during a game – Raymond Chapman 1920. Only one NHL player has ever died during a game – William Masterton 1968. No NBA player has ever died during a game.

    In the history of our country, 4 of the largest and longest running human sports have resulted in a total of 3 dead during a professional game.

    Zero deaths due to NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL players being jammed in trailers and shipped to Canada and Mexico for barbaric slaughter.

    Irrefutable evidence points to a minimum of 1,000 horse racing track deaths a year. The yearly slaughter of young thoroughbreds is a significant multiple of on-track deaths.

    In this country we often brutally kill more race horses in one day than in the combined hundreds of years of professional sports. Hundreds of thousands of deaths verses three.

    There is no possible way to justify any aspect of horse racing. There is no possible way to clean up horse racing. HSUS needs to fight to abolish racing if you have even one once of respect for horses. There is not a shred of truth relating it to human sports. It is a blood sport, no different than dog fighting or cock fighting.

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