April 6, 2024

The horse race is one of the oldest of sports, and its basic concept has remained virtually unchanged. It developed from a primitive contest of speed or stamina between two horses into a spectacle that involves massive fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money. But the fundamental concept remains unchanged: whoever crosses the finish line first is the winner.

The sport of horse racing has benefited from a series of technological advances in recent years, but there are still some within the industry who refuse to acknowledge that the dark side of the sport exists. Growing awareness about overbreeding, poor training practices for young horses, abusive drug use, injuries and breakdowns, and the fate of American horses sent to foreign slaughterhouses has led to improvements on and off the track.

Many of these advancements have been the result of increasing pressure from animal rights activists who have stepped up their efforts to expose abuse in the racing industry. But the truth is, it is a very difficult sport to police. State regulations are feckless, veterinarians are often one step ahead of the officials who test them, and trainers give their horses performance-enhancing drugs that do not show up in drug tests. The only thing that prevents the abuse from going on decade after decade is a code of silence among racing insiders.

When the video surfaced, it created an immediate split in the industry. There were those who were suspicious of how PETA got the video and questioned its credibility, those who downplayed or defended the allegations, and those who were genuinely concerned. But all of these camps share one common trait: they have failed to recognize that real reform is possible.

Those who want to change the culture of horse racing must acknowledge the problem and stop trying to beat the messenger. That means funding enhanced drug testing, legislative efforts to better regulate trainers and veterinarians, and ending the insider’s code of silence that keeps the truth from coming out.

Until this happens, the horse race will continue to be a sport that is unsustainable. The numbers do not lie: declining viewership, dwindling revenue, and fewer and fewer races being held each year. It is time for the sport to wake up and realize that it can no longer hide behind its myth of purity, ingenuity, and integrity. It is time to admit that the reality of its exploitation of horses and its treatment of workers is far more appalling than it ever imagined. That is the only way it will finally be able to change. And then it might be able to survive.