"Racehorses in America are the victims of a multi-billion dollar industry that is rife with drug abuse, injuries, and death."
Thousands of Thoroughbreds are bred for racing every year. Depending on the country, only 5% to 10% ever see a racecourse. What happens to the others? Unless they are lucky enough to find another career, they are disposed of, typically at a slaughterhouse.
Breeding Thoroughbreds became a greed riddled business in the late 80's and continued through the 90's. It only abated when a sagging economy began to impact sales, and breeding of Thoroughbreds began to slacken.
According to Jockey Club statistics, the number continues to drop. 27,233 Thoroughbred foals were produced in 2010, down 14.2% from 2009.
A normal book (mares bred to stallions) was typically 40-50 but skyrocketed to 140-150 during the boom years. This was great for Stallion owners, but it flooded the market with "mid-range" horses.
It is also the reason behind the so-called "unwanted horse" epidemic, a term coined by the pro-horse slaughter element of the horse industry, in which breeders are predictably active.
Regardless of the economy, beautifully bred horses find a buyer who can and will pay top dollar. Now that the market is leveling out and returning to the days of quality over quantity, it is an opportune time to ban the slaughtering of horses.
Horses begin training or already racing when their skeletal systems are still growing and unprepared to handle the pressures of running on a hard track at high speeds.
Improved medical treatment and technological advancements have done little to remedy the plight of the racehorse.
Strained tendons or hairline fractures can be tough for veterinarians to diagnose, and the damage may go from minor to irreversible at the next race or workout.
Horses do not handle surgery well, as they tend to be disoriented when coming out of anesthesia, and they may fight casts or slings, possibly causing further injury.
Instead, seriously injured horses are put down in order to save their owners escalating veterinary fees.
Racehorses still mobile enough to load in a trailer are often sent to auction where they are bought by killer buyers who act as middlemen for horse slaughter plants. Some are handed over to killer buyers right at the track.
Numbers from the Jockey Club's equine injury database covering a one-year period show that one of every 500 Thoroughbred starts at North American racetracks results in a fatal injury. This represents about 800 deaths. Reporting is voluntary with 85% of race tracks participating.
In a separate count by The Associated Press, state racing jurisdictions reported more than 1,200 horse deaths at Thoroughbred racetracks in 2008 — some involving breeds other than Thoroughbreds. There were similar totals for the five years before that.
“Finding an American racehorse trained on the traditional hay, oats, and water probably would be impossible,” commented one reporter.
Many racehorses become addicted to drugs when their trainers and veterinarians give them drugs to keep them on the track when they shouldn’t be racing.
“There are trainers pumping horses full of illegal drugs every day,” says a former Churchill Downs public relations director. “With so much money on the line, people will do anything to make their horses run faster.”
Which drugs are legal varies from state to state, with Kentucky holding the reputation as the most lenient state.
The New York Sun explained that because “thoroughbreds are bred for flashy speed and to look good in the sales ring … the animal itself has become more fragile” and that “to keep the horses going,” they’re all given Lasix (which controls bleeding in the lungs), phenylbutazone (an anti-inflammatory), and cortiscosteroids (for pain and inflammation).
Those drugs, although legal, can also mask pain or make a horse run faster. Labs cannot detect all the illegal drugs out there, of which there “could be thousands,” says the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.
Morphine, which can keep a horse from feeling any pain from an injury, was suspected in the case of Be My Royal, who won a race while limping.
Rick Dutrow, the trainer of 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, openly admits to giving his horses Winstrol, a steroid that is illegal for equine use in 10 states, although not in the three that host the Triple Crown.
Before it was banned in Pennsylvania, nearly 1,000 horses were tested for steroids and more than 60 percent tested positive.
Big Brown’s veterinarian concedes that “without steroids, they’d lose some horses that can’t keep up the pace and race every three weeks or every month."
Even the most beloved horse in America next to Barbaro, the prolific winning super mare Zenyatta who benefited from sensitive treatment by her connections raced on both Lasix and Bute according to racing programs.
For the fortunate racehorses who escape the slaughter pipeline, and accepted by an off the track Thoroughbred rehabilitation center, staff report that weening them off the medications routine to racing can take months.
In cases where horses are also recuperating from sidelining injuries, it is difficult to watch them struggling through withdrawal symptoms from the vicious drugs they were given when they were racing to keep them on the track.