The Dark Side of a Horse Race
A horse race is a spectacle of beautiful, sleek, muscular horses, their jockeys in elegant clothes sipping mint juleps, and thousands of spectators cheering on their favorites. But behind the romanticized façade of a sport that contributes $15 billion to the economy is a world of dangerous drugs, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter. The New York Times’s expose of alleged cruelty at the elite level of Thoroughbred racing shines a spotlight on this dark side.
There are crooks who dangerously drug and otherwise abuse their horses; there are dupes who labor under the fantasy that the sport is broadly fair and honest; and there are the masses in the middle—neither naive nor cheaters, but honorable souls who know the industry is more crooked than it ought to be but don’t do all they can to fix it. It is a dangerous place to be in the middle of this triangle.
When the horse is running at full speed, its lower legs receive a devastating pounding, straining ligaments, tendons, and joints. It also takes a pounding from its rider, whose job it is to encourage the animal to continue pushing on through a tiring race. Many horses are also pushed to run before they’re fully mature, a practice that puts them at risk for developmental issues. During races, horses’ hooves are at particular risk of being cracked from the constant jarring of hard surfaces.
It is not uncommon for a horse to be rushed from the starting gate and into a race, having hardly had a chance to settle down. This puts the animals at risk of injury and often results in a horrific accident, like the deaths of thirty horses at Santa Anita in 2019 that spurred safety reforms nationwide. Protocol now requires a necropsy of all fatalities on the track, a review of contributing factors, vet records, and interviews with stakeholders. But only California and New York publish their equine injury and mortality data.
The New York Times’s story also focused on trainer Steve Asmussen and his assistant, Scott Blasi, who were accused of abusing their horses at the highest levels of racing. Asmussen, who won three of this year’s four Triple Crown races and has a reputation as a dogged disciplinarian, is a top-level conditioner with ties to the sport’s biggest owners, and Blasi is one of the most successful jockeys in the country.
The article’s revelations will surely send a shudder through the racing establishment. But it would be a mistake for the sport’s legions of apologists to conflate hostility toward PETA with dismissal of its work. Virtually no one beyond racing cares how a reporter got undercover video of alleged cruelty; they just care about what the footage shows. As the Times report makes clear, the problems are widespread—and getting worse. Click through the slideshow to see some of the images from the article and learn about industry cruelty, including abusive training practices for young horses, drug use, and the transport of abused horses to slaughter.