The horse racing season concludes this weekend with the Belmont Stakes, the third and final race in the Triple Crown series. Racing enthusiasts will watch to see which horse takes home the big prize. But once the race ends and the tracks are empty again, the horse racing industry will find itself in a poor position, lagging behind in the popularity race.
The drugging of horses by certain veterinarians and trainers to boost race performance and the continuing scandals surrounding the sale of racehorses to slaughter houses where they are turned into meat, have cast a cloud over the sport. Today, at most races other than the Triple Crown, horses run at tracks with increasingly empty bleachers occupied by an aging and shrinking fan base.
The Humane Society of the United States has been working with key stakeholders in the horse racing industry, including members of our National Horse Racing Advisory Council, who want to prioritize animal welfare concerns, like widespread drugging, ending the slaughter of racehorses for human consumption overseas, and expanding second career opportunities.
The council’s current efforts center on the passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act H.R.2651, a federal bill that focuses on medication reform and includes a ban on race day medication. Despite its national and international scope, modern horse racing is still being conducted under outdated state-by-state drug and medication rules and this obsolete model is ripe for change. This bill, introduced by Reps. Andy Barr, R-Ky., and Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., will make all of the difference.
There is a strong need for a federal law because unlike other sports, horse racing has no central regulatory body to provide oversight or to sanction those who flout rules. Each state’s racing commission determines what drugs are used and what penalties are meted out for violators, and the result is a patchwork of many different sets of rules. Many states have extremely permissive medication rules and a lax attitude toward those who break the laws.
The routine drugging of horses to give them a leg up in competition has to end. We would not approve of this in any other sport, and we should not turn a blind eye to this practice in the horse racing industry. Too many horses have died in recent years as a result of widespread drugging and Congress needs to pass the Horseracing Integrity Act to ensure these abuses are outlawed once and for all.
There’s something else. Responsibly retiring and ensuring a happy and meaningful life for racehorses at the conclusion of their racing careers is an industry and owner responsibility. While too many horses still lack a sufficient safety net after their racing careers, we are encouraged by some of the industry initiatives for thoroughbred aftercare. And while there is still work to do, we are optimistic about the prospects for even better and more innovative programs for aftercare in the thoroughbred racing industry.
The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, for example, inspects and awards grants to approved aftercare organizations to retire, retrain and rehome thoroughbreds using industry-wide funding. The Jockey Club has also created several initiatives to support the aftercare and retraining of racehorses and one of its programs enables owners and breeders to financially support select charities that deal with aftercare and retraining. The Thoroughbred Charities of America raises and distributes money to approved charitable organizations assisting with thoroughbred rehabilitation, retraining, and rehoming, backstretch and farm employee program, and equine-assisted therapy programs. Finally, the Retired Racehorse Project , founded in 2010 to facilitate placement of thoroughbred ex-racehorses in second careers by increasing demand for them in equestrian sports, sponsors the annual Thoroughbred Makeover. In 2017, the Makeover featured 385 off-the-track racehorses trained for 10 months competing in up to two of 10 equestrian sports. We applaud these efforts by the thoroughbred racing community to engage this important challenge and we would encourage both the standardbred and quarter horse communities to follow the thoroughbred racing industry’s valuable example in this regard.
One principle unites the issues of drugging abuse and aftercare. These incredible equine athletes deserve to participate on a level playing field where their welfare both during and after their racing careers is a priority. And we must work together with every willing partner to ensure this worthy outcome.