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At the Kentucky Derby, horses are worked to death for human vanity

The horse racing industry is egregiously cruel. We should end it yesterday.

Race horses running in front of a crowd.
The field heads to the first turn during the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 6, 2023.
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Amid the ostentatious hats and mint julep parties, a dark cloud hung over the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby this Saturday. Seven horses were dead before the main event.

It started with Wild On Ice, a horse who had been transported to an equine hospital after injuring his left hind leg during his final training on April 27. Two days later, it was Code of Kings who broke his neck after flipping and Parents Pride who died suddenly of causes yet to be identified. Then it was Take Charge Briana and Chasing Artie who both collapsed during races. And on the day of the Derby, Chloe’s Dream and Freezing Point were euthanized after sustaining a front knee and ankle injury, respectively. (Different sources are inconsistent on the order of the deaths.) All were five years old or younger. (For reference, a domestic horse’s natural lifespan is 25-30 years.)

Representatives from Churchill Downs, the racetrack where the Kentucky Derby takes place, described the deaths as “anomalies” in a press release. In truth, they were anything but — instead, they reflect a pattern of cruelty pervasive in the horse racing industry.

Just weeks prior, at the Grand National Festival — a popular horse race held annually in England — a 10-year-old horse named Hill Sixteen died during the main event. After falling, veterinarians determined he had sustained a fatal injury, so they put him down. Two more horses — Envoye Special and Dark Raven — had died in the days prior at the same event. Hill Sixteen was the 62nd horse to have died at the Grand National since 2000.

For years, there have been rumblings in the world of horse racing about ugly, abusive practices. Even those with minimal interest in the sport are likely to have heard something or other about doping, physical abuse, or the early mortality of race horses.

A 2012 New York Times report detailed widespread doping and high mortality among US race horses relative to horses in countries with stricter regulations around drugging horses. Two years later, the Times covered a PETA investigation into the stables of prominent trainer Steve Asmussen, which discovered injured horses forced to run, inappropriately over-drugged horses, and horses shocked with a buzzer — a practice ostensibly banned in the sport. Though Asmussen has faced temporary suspensions for doping in the past, he is in the Racing Hall of Fame and was recently recognized as the first US trainer to win 10,000 races.

The same abuses seem to crop up again and again, despite repeated media reports and racing authority interventions. The last few years have seen a slew of disturbing developments. The Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California shut down for most of March 2019 after 23 horses died in the span of just three months. In late 2021, the horse Medina Spirit, the winner of that year’s Kentucky Derby, died suddenly at just three years old. Two months after his death, the horse was officially stripped of his title due to his having failed multiple drug tests. As a result, the horse’s trainer, Bob Baffert (who had been investigated for doping in 2013 as well), was handed a 90-day suspension by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and fined $7,500. (He was also banned by Churchill Downs for two years, so was unable to have any of his horses in this year’s Kentucky Derby.)

Race horses are worked to death so that humans can profit

Beyond the abuses that are clear-cut violations of the rules, even the customary practices that horse racing depends on are unethical and might be unreformable. “There is no other mainstream sport where carnage and indifference occur so regularly — and are as tolerated,” Elizabeth Banicki, who used to work in the horse racing industry but left due to its cruelty, wrote in the Guardian this week. “The horses are unable to withstand moving at such speed when they are so young and underdeveloped. They are pushed to exhaustion. The repetitive percussive drill of training and running kills some of them, and ruins others for life.”

The ribbons, trophies, prize money, and gambling winnings earned in exchange for horses’ suffering might mean everything to jockeys and fans, but they mean nothing to the animals themselves. Horses can’t consent to racing, let alone to the brutal training that precedes it. The racing world often refers to them as their “equine partners,” a cynical euphemism at best. The animals are worked to death so that people can profit.

Despite all this, horse racing remains exceptionally popular: an estimated 500 million people around the world tune in to the Grand National; some 36 million watched last year’s Kentucky Derby. While horses have a particular kind of importance and charisma in the American imagination, they are, like all non-human animals, considered property — like a mug or a chair — and deprived of meaningful protection under the law. This means that as long as people want to watch, participate in, or profit from horse racing, it’ll be exceedingly hard to end it.

Some reform may be on the horizon. In 2020, Congress passed a bill that created the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA), a national regulatory organization tasked with standardizing the rules of the sport, such as which medications are permitted and whether whips can be used — rules that currently vary from state to state, as do the penalties for breaking them. HISA penalties would prevent trainers who violate the rules from jumping between states, for instance, to simply practice in Kentucky while under suspension in California.

Standardizing animal welfare rules, and raising the penalties for those who break them, aren’t bad ideas. But it seems highly unlikely that these regulations will meaningfully change the sport when many of the practices they target are already banned, while other forms of cruelty remain unchallenged, integral parts of the sport. Trainers knowingly use drugs and electric buzzers even when it’s against state or sport rules. They’re given a slap on the wrist and simply resume their careers once their suspensions end. The problem with regulating horse racing as a sport is that it treats it as a game, in which infractions can be remedied with simple penalties, rather than a fundamental violation of animals’ autonomy and well-being.

HISA apparently failed to prevent the deaths at this year’s Kentucky Derby, and said in a statement that Churchill Downs was “in full compliance with [its] rules and processes.” Imagine if athletes were routinely dropping dead at the Olympics while the relevant regulatory body declared, “nothing to see here.”

Retired race horses could end up on someone’s dinner plate (really)

HISA also can’t prevent what may be the darkest consequence of horse racing: what happens to horses once their racing careers are over. Because it’s less expensive to kill them than to keep them alive, horses can end up slaughtered.

Horse slaughter is effectively banned in the US, but the slaughter of American horses has continued due to loopholes. According to a National Geographic report, more than 20,000 horses were exported to Mexico or Canada in 2022, where they’re subsequently slaughtered; their meat is then exported for human and other consumption to countries around the world. Poorly enforced bans on horse slaughter domestically have “essentially created this rogue industry and economy that continues to operate in the shadows, and our horses are suffering terribly,” said Caroline Howe, founder and executive director of the Horse Welfare Collective on the Equestrian Voices podcast. Howe said she has witnessed severely injured or dead horses destined for slaughter on transport trailers.

A bill pending in Congress, the Save America’s Forgotten Equines Act, would ban the export of horses for slaughter. Animal advocates have unsuccessfully been trying to end horse export for slaughter for years, facing opposition from organizations like the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Among the many grave threats facing non-human animals, horse racing is admittedly low on the list. The meat industry slaughters 80 billion land animals globally every year; laboratory experiments kill tens of millions of animals annually. For comparison, only 7,602 horses in North America suffered fatal racing injuries between 2009 and 2022.

But ending the use of horses in sports ought to be a low-hanging win for animal welfare. We should be able to agree as a society that horse racing represents a nonessential and gratuitous form of cruelty. We can have our sports, mint juleps, vibrant spring parties, and flamboyant hats — but we can leave the horses out of it.

Brian Kateman co-founded the Reducetarian Foundation in 2015, an organization advocating for the reduction of animal product consumption. His writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, Fast Company, NBC, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. His latest book and documentary is Meat Me Halfway.