Horse racing is one of the most exciting and engaging sports. From the roar of the crowds in the grandstand to the giddy thrill of placing a winning bet, there’s nothing quite like it. It’s also a sport that is inextricably woven into our culture and history, whether we realize it or not.
It is, however, a sport that has an enormously difficult time facing the truth about its darker side. The truth is that too many of the horses who run in races are abused, neglected and ultimately abandoned. And the horse industry cannot continue to ignore this reality without suffering the consequences.
To understand why, it helps to know something about the history of the sport and the way that horses are treated in modern times.
Organized horse racing began with the British occupation of New Amsterdam (now New York City) in 1664. A British colonial commander named Richard Nicolls established organized racing in the United States by laying out a course on Long Island and offering prizes for the fastest horses. The American version of the race favored speed, but it did not achieve the level of popularity of its British counterpart until after the Civil War.
During that time, the American Thoroughbred became a cultural phenomenon. The English traveler William Blane once noted that a race between the North’s Eclipse and the South’s Sir Henry at Union Course, Long Island, roused more interest than a presidential election. It was not uncommon for crowds to number in the tens of thousands, and some traveled five hundred miles just to attend a race.
In 1751, a series of standardized races was established called the King’s Plates. These were contested by six-year-olds carrying 168 pounds at four-mile heats, and a winner had to win two of the races in order to be declared champion. In addition, heats were also offered for four- and five-year-olds.
Horses start racing while their skeletal systems are still developing, and they must be forced to run at high speeds on hard tracks for long distances. The result is that horses are often injured or even killed in their attempts to win these prestigious races. One study found that a thoroughbred dies every twenty-two races due to injuries suffered in the course of competition.
The alleged cruelty exposed by PETA has led to calls for reform. It is easy to understand the concern, but it is harder to comprehend why so many within racing remain complicit in the mistreatment of these animals.
It is true that the vast majority of trainers, jockeys, exercise riders and other handlers care deeply about the horses in their charge and would never harm them intentionally. But it is equally true that the sport’s current structure allows for all manner of abuse and neglect to occur. It is time to make real changes for the betterment of all involved in this great, historic, and worthy sport. Then, perhaps we will have a race that is worthy of the name: A great horse race.