News & Politics

Death on the Track—The Truth About Horseracing

The sight of the filly Eight Belles collapsing after crossing the wire to finish second in the Kentucky Derby was unusual, but only because she made it the finish line and then suffered a catastrophic injury that required her being put down.

Apologists for the racing industry, and there are many, always argue after such an event that these breakdowns “don’t happen every day.” They are rare, they are unusual. Trainers, owners, grooms, and jockeys are animal lovers who would never do anything to endanger the lives of the horses they love so much.

If only that were true. At the upper end of the sport, where the Triple Crown races occupy the stage, it is somewhat true. If you have a $1-million investment in the animal, yes, the owners are going to do everything they can to protect and preserve the horse. But the fact is that horses like Eight Belles go down somewhere every day.
The racing seen on network television three or four times a year is a small part of the racing industry. Consider that every night in America there is racing at Evangeline Downs, Mountaineer Park, Charles Town, Prairie Meadows, Emerald Downs, or Los Alamitos. You don’t find many horses running at those tracks that are worth more than a few thousand dollars. Sometimes they aren’t worth much more than the value of the purse offered in a race. To be brutally frank about it, you can run a cheap horse and if he dies after winning the race, you can still break even. If you have insurance, you might come out ahead.

Every day and every night in America, horses are asked to run injured and they are given drugs to mask those injuries. Sometimes the drugs are legal, sometimes not. Legal or not, they make it easier for an injured horse to get around the track.  When the drug wears off, the horse doesn’t complain or hire a labor lawyer.

One would be hard-pressed to find a trainer, even well-known trainers, who never have had a horse test positive in a drug test. Dick Dutrow, the trainer who won the Kentucky Derby with Big Brown, has been suspended more than once. Todd Pletcher, who won the training title at Saratoga Race Course five straight years, was suspended in 2006 for cheating. Jeff Mullins, one of the legendary trainers of Southern California, has been suspended many times.

The illegal use of so-called “milkshakes,” in which horses are given bicarbonates and sugar through a rubber tube into their stomachs, was once considered common, not only at fly-by-night tracks in the Deep South but at top tracks in proud Kentucky. Last year one of the most successful stakes-winning trainers in the game, Patrick Biancone, accepted a year-long suspension for giving his horse nerve-blocking cobra venom.

You don’t have to look far to find obvious evidence of horses running injured. All you have to do is scan the Racing Form. There is nothing unusual about seeing a very expensive horse suddenly being put on the market in an $8,000 claiming race. Oftentimes you will notice that this comes after a very fast and good race. Suddenly the horse has declined in value from $100,000 to $8,000? It’s not because the horse has suddenly turned slow, it’s because he has an injury. At the heart of racing’s claiming game is a desire by the owner to mask an injury and hopefully unload the damaged goods on an unsuspecting new owner.

While the industry talks about the grand spectacle of racing, as if every day is the Kentucky Derby, at its essence racing it is an insider’s game where people in the know try to cheat the public. Especially at the smaller tracks, an owner can make more money betting on his horse than winning with his horse. As in the claiming game, the trick is to deceive the public. You can run your horse dead last on purpose three times in a row and then suddenly he comes to life at 100 to 1.

I love honest racing and have no desire to see a ban on the sport, any more than one would want a ban on non-fixed boxing or auto racing, two other life-threatening sports. I do almost all my wagering on tracks in California, which seem the most honest and best regulated in the country. They also have taken the lead in creating safe racing surfaces for horses. But California is one good end of the spectrum. States like Louisiana are the other.

But is it asking too much for the racing industry to be honest? How about the same insider-trading rules for trainers and owners that exist for insiders in corporate America. How about letting the public know when a trainer is betting for or against his own horse? How about some modicum of transparency to protect the vicimized horseplayer?
How about a one-strike-and-you’re-out suspension for egregious cheating.

How about creating a system that doesn’t encourage owners and trainers to run horses that are hurt. Maybe there are too many tracks in the United States and too many races. If there aren’t enough sound horses to fill racing cards, how about running fewer times a week, like they do in England.

Horse racing can be made better. It could be made honest. The people on the inside, who know when a horse is drugged or injured or about to spring a top effort, maybe thanks to cobra venom, have a sure thing going. In most states, they will fight attempts to clean up the industry. And when a horse like Barbaro is injured in the Preakness, or Eight Belles goes down after the Derby, they simply wait out the shock and the outrage, claiming these are unusual incidents.
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