A horse race is a contest of speed and stamina between horses over a short distance. The first one to have its nose pass over a white line marking the finish is declared the winner. While different races have a few variations in rules and length, the essentials remain the same. Throughout history, the sport has morphed from primitive contests of speed and endurance to a spectacle featuring large fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money. But the defining feature has always been the racehorses themselves.
Behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred horse racing is a world of drug abuse, gruesome injuries and breakdowns, and slaughter. Despite the fact that horses are social animals who love to run, they’re forced to sprint—often under the threat of whips and illegal electric shocking devices—at speeds so high that they often sustain horrific injuries and hemorrhage from their lungs.
On a sunny day at Santa Anita, in the backstretch, the horses moved into motion in the last rays of the afternoon sun. The glistening chestnut mares drew bettors in elegant silks and velvet caps. The men and women in the crowd clapped and cheered, even as the horse’s jockeys, who wore brightly colored helmets with big leather straps, whipped them into shape with huge, long, curved whips. During the stretch run, the crowd grew louder, with shouts of encouragement and curses that sometimes were in Spanish and Chinese.
Horses can weigh up to twelve hundred pounds, but they move with hypnotic smoothness. As they ran through the backstretch, you could see that many of them were thirsty. They had been injected that morning with Lasix, a diuretic, noted on their racing forms with a bold-face “L.” This is given to all thoroughbreds during races to help prevent exercise-induced pulmonary bleeding, which occurs when horses race and exert themselves vigorously.
Most of the time, a race is a matter of luck and chance. The winning horse is usually the fastest one to get to the starting gate, the quickest to make a breakaway from the pack during the early stages of the race, and the best at saving energy for the final sprint known as the home stretch.
The fact that horses are prone to injury is a sore point for those who support the sport. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Growing awareness of the cruelty of racing, including its abusive training practices for young horses, the use of drugs to mask injuries and enhance performance, and the transport of slaughter-bound ex-racehorses to Mexico and Canada—where they’re killed for meat and dog food—is helping to turn the tide. Until the sport addresses these issues, though, it will continue to lose fans, revenue and race days. If you want to learn more, visit PETA’s groundbreaking investigations into horse-racing industry cruelty, including the breeding and abuse of young horses, the use of dangerous drugs, and the fate of countless American horses in foreign slaughterhouses.