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Horses to the Slaughter

Horses to the Slaughter

Thoroughbred racing trades on bucolic imagery and glossy beauty, but a report in The Times on Sunday documented the real pillars of its success: the casual and continual mistreatment of vulnerable, overmedicated and ultimately disposable athletes. Reporters who analyzed tens of thousands of races and combed through reports of injuries and medical tests found a culture of rampant cheating and feeble regulation, where injured and fragile horses are forced to run while drugged, to the great peril of both animals and jockeys.

The main reason is drugs — the stimulants, steroids, pain medications, anti-inflammatories and other chemicals used to enhance performance and mask injuries. Veterinarians and racing officials acknowledge that abuses are rampant but grossly unpoliced because tracks and state racing commissions lack the will or money to crack down. Much illegal doping takes place on private farms where horses can’t be tested. No single governing body or federal regulations control the industry’s drug practices, and existing punishments are lax.

So horses break down at alarming rates: 3,600 horses died while racing or training at state-regulated tracks in the last three years, The Times found. In Sunland Park in New Mexico — a state that is home to five of the six tracks with the highest breakdown rates — nine horses died in one 13-day stretch in 2010. Two jockeys were hurt, one critically. Necropsy reports told of horses that had been running with debilitating ailments: stomach ulcers, degenerative joint diseases, pneumonia, metal screws from previous broken bones.

The details are painful reading, but we have heard this story before. The death of Eight Belles, who snapped two ankles at the Kentucky Derby in 2008, brought Congressional scrutiny and promises of reform. But a powerful combination of money, secrecy and inattention has blocked progress and left the industry as compromised and dangerous as ever. This seems partly because of racetrack casinos, which have pumped new money into race stakes and added to the pressure to run unfit horses.

Not all owners and breeders are complicit; some are urging reform. Some support a federal bill to ban all racehorse doping. They note that the United States lags behind Asia, the Middle East and Europe in eliminating racetrack drugs. It’s a worthy goal, but, as with previous reforms in this disreputable industry, it faces long odds.

Source: New York Times

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