The Dark Side of Horse Racing

A horse race is a contest between two horses or a group of runners, in which the fastest finisher wins. It is one of the world’s oldest sports, having developed from a primitive test of speed or stamina into a spectacular spectacle with a modern-day business structure and enormous sums of money at stake.

Despite this, horse racing is still an industry in decline, with a declining share of the betting pie and a rapidly shrinking base of fans. Across the country, race tracks are closing, revenue is slipping and the sport is being hit by growing criticism of its dark side.

Behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred horse racing lies a world of drugs, injuries and gruesome breakdowns. While spectators wear fancy outfits and sip mint juleps, horses are forced to sprint–often under the threat of whips and illegal electric-shocking devices known as jiggers. They are drugged with cocktails of legal and illegal substances designed to mask injuries, enhance performance and coerce them into running beyond their physical limits. Many of these equine athletes will bleed from their lungs, a dangerous condition called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. They are often injected with a painkiller and a diuretic, drugs that also have performance-enhancing properties. And, if they don’t win, most will be slaughtered.

A video released by PETA this week offers an eye-opening glimpse of what animal activists allege is the cruel treatment of world-class racehorses at two of America’s most prestigious tracks. The footage focuses on two trainers, Steve Asmussen and Scott Blasi.

While defending their training practices, some in racing argue that the majority of trainers, assistant trainers, jockeys and drivers care about horses and would never intentionally harm them. But, this claim is based on a false premise. It is false because most people within the industry know that the abuses continue, decade after decade, because state regulators are feckless and because the drug makers are one step ahead of officials developing tests for banned substances.

In a time when political competition is often framed as a horse race, the mudslinging, name calling and attack ads can distract voters from the real issues at stake in any given contest. A recent study found that newspapers with corporate owners were more likely to frame elections as a horse race than those owned by individuals. In fact, the research suggests that if the media continues to present campaigns as a horse race, it will be very difficult for voters to distinguish between competing policies and candidates. Ultimately, this will result in a lower quality of politics and a less informed citizenry. It will also make it more difficult to hold politicians accountable for their actions in office. This, in turn, will negatively impact our democracy and our economy. This is why we must fight back against the distorted portrayal of election campaigns in the media and support true reforms in our political system.