The sport of horse racing is one of the oldest in the world. It has evolved from a primitive contest of speed or stamina between two animals to a spectacle with vast fields of runners and sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, but the basic principle remains the same: The horse that crosses the finish line first wins.
Racing, like any sport, has a dark side. It has long been a haven for unscrupulous owners, trainers, and gamblers who cheat to gain an edge over their competitors. The industry has been rife with scandal and corruption, but it has also made great strides in improving the welfare of horses, particularly during recent years. A growing awareness of industry cruelty — such as overbreeding, racing surface burns, and injuries and breakdowns — has fueled these improvements.
Horses don’t naturally love to run, and most need to be encouraged by whipping to keep up with rivals. On the track, they take a terrible pounding as they sprint around the oval, straining their lower legs, tendons, and joints. On a hot day, they can overheat and lose control. And they’re pushed so hard that some horses get injured or even die.
There are those who think that horse racing is inherently flawed and unethical, but the truth is that the majority of people who work with horses and wager on races have nothing to do with cheating or doping. They’re a far-too-silent majority, but they deserve a chance to speak out for themselves before it’s too late.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when organized horse racing was first established, but the earliest recorded accounts come from the Greek Olympic Games held between 700 and 40 B.C. There, riders participated in both four-hitch chariot and mounted bareback races. The game soon spread to countries such as China, Persia, and Arabia, where it became highly refined.
In modern times, horses have been subjected to a wide variety of performance-enhancing substances. Until recently, most racehorses were injected with epinephrine (better known as adrenaline), which is often called “the legal steroid of choice” because of its potency and widespread use. But in 2011, a group of veterinarians published a report arguing that epinephrine was ineffective, dangerous, and potentially lethal for horses.
A new video from PETA, which is now gaining attention in the press and among fans, gives the public a glimpse of what many animal rights activists allege is the reality at the highest levels of thoroughbred racing. Despite the fact that racing insiders hate the organization, virtually no one outside the sport cares how PETA gets its undercover video; they only care about what is seen on it. The emergence of this video should serve as a wake-up call for everyone in the business, from trainers to gamblers and bettors. They should demand a better standard of accountability and do everything they can to ensure the integrity of the sport. It’s not only a matter of humane treatment of horses; it’s a matter of ensuring the sport’s continued success and viability in the future.