The Grim Side of “Glamorous”

According to the promotional materials published by New York State´s tourist industry, “the August place to be” is Saratoga. From the last week of July to Labor Day weekend, Saratoga is ablaze with the colors, costumes, and pageantry of its world-famous racing season, bringing visitors from all over the USA and abroad. During this festive season, the spectators watch equine athletes race, bet on the outcomes, and enjoy the spectacle of women dressed in their finery topped with elegant hats. This is America´s answer to the jet-set splendor of international horse racing and Opening Day at Ascot.

However, behind the glitter of the racing scene lie several sad truths about the fate of thousands of horses bred for New York´s Thoroughbred (and to a lesser extent, its Standardbred) industry. According to Patrick Hooker, the State´s Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets, “only 15 percent of all racehorses are successful; the future for the remaining 85 percent of racehorses is uncertain.” In fact, the disturbing and often abusive fates that these unwanted horses face are a serious stain on the industry´s honor.

Recently, in an attempt to improve conditions, Commissioner Hooker and State Racing and Wagering Board Chairman Daniel Hogan announced the formation of “The New York State Task Force on Retired Race Horses.” The goal of the task force is to prevent racehorses from being shipped to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico by performing a cost-benefit analysis of installing artificial turf at race courses to see if it produces less strain on Thoroughbreds´ delicate legs and hoofs.

Many of these horses break down because of the abnormal stresses they must endure due to the training protocols and the standards set by racing tradition that create severe strains on young horses.

Yet there is much more that has to be changed than installing artificial turf (which may or may not be beneficial). Many of these horses break down because of the abnormal stresses they must endure due to the training protocols and the standards set by racing tradition that create severe strains on young horses. The preeminent races with the largest purses are for two- and three-year-olds. This necessitates that young Thoroughbreds commence their rigorous training as pre-adolescent one-year-olds, and endure training regimens that commonly impose intolerable strain on their fragile limbs and open growth plates. No other form of equine use places such a strain on developing bodies; for instance, a dressage competitor is not considered to be sufficiently mature for his or her form of athleticism until the age of six and above. However, the yearling Thoroughbred training for a racing career bears a rider´s weight and pounds his or her young limbs on track surfaces that are kept hard to encourage greater speed records, while placing too much stress on their bodies. Hence, horses are routinely drugged to mask painful injuries and to promote increased speed.

The end result of these practices is the tragedy of Barbaro, where a young animal not yet in his prime, lost his life due to the shattering of his bones in a competition that is unreasonably stressful. And for every Barbaro, where thousands of dollars were spend spent in medical intervention in an unsuccessful attempt to save his life, hundreds more are euthanized out of sight, and as the industry hopes, out of mind. In an article by Ted Miller, appearing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he found that approximately 800 Thoroughbreds are euthanized annually in the US due to racetrack injuries. (“Six recent horse deaths spark concern,” May 8, 2001) In addition to those euthanized, thousands of others end up going to slaughter, both because of their failure to perform and simply because there are too many horses bred each year to fuel the racing industry. Horses sent to slaughter are forced to endure days of transport in cramped trailers, often with no water or food because sadly, the Department of Agriculture laws allow horses to be shipped for 28 hours without a break. Until racing regulations are reformed and enforced to prevent immature animals from being raced, whipped, and drugged, too many racing horses will continue to meet tragic and horrific deaths.

derbyStockIn addition, there are the peripheral sources of racing horse abuse found in the practice of breeding nurse mares to provide foster mothers for expensive foals whose mothers have rejected them or are unable to nurse their own progeny. As the surrogate nurse mares are sent to racing stables to nourish the valuable foals, their own foals may be left to struggle with malnutrition, as in the recent case of a horse breeder whose foals were the subject of a cruelty investigation in which NYSHA´s Dr. Holly Cheever participated. These abandoned foals were never given an adequate nursling diet, nor were they given the medical attention that such youngsters require; their extreme neglect in such a formative period will prevent them from ever attaining their genetic potential or proper health.

NYSHA wants these abuses stopped and urges all people of conscience to eschew the pageantry of the racing scene…

NYSHA wants these abuses stopped and urges all people of conscience to eschew the pageantry of the racing scene and to tell friends to boycott it as well. In addition, support NYSHA´s efforts in working for reform. Write a letter to the editor when racing season opens to expose its inherent cruelty; an excellent resource for more information can be found in the racing fact sheet on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals´ website ( For those who can house horses long-term and humanely, consider offering your assistance when retired horses are looking for homes, but please do not take on more than you can afford. Few rescue and foster care farms can bear the expense of caring for large numbers of animals costing thousands of dollars annually in farrier care, veterinary treatment, feeding, and housing, while living into their mid-30s. All too often, today´s breeder or well-intended equine rescue facility is tomorrow´s out-of-funds hoarder. NYSHA´s Sue McDonough who is constantly called upon to investigate such hoarder cases knows this all too well.

The horses rely on all of us to expose the suffering that lies beneath the spectacular image of the horse racing world.

Late News: The young filly Eight Belles broke both her ankles after running the Kentucky Derby (2008), and was euthanized ­ yet another tragedy resulting from forcing young horses to pound down the track at breakneck speeds, some plagued with nagging leg injuries partially masked with pain medications. Yet these youngsters fear the whip more than the pain ­ and tragically end up paying the ultimate price.

New York State Humane Association Humane Review, Vol.XXIII, No.1, Spring­Summer 2009.