If the extent of your horse-racing knowledge starts with the Kentucky Derby and ends with mint juleps, the New York Times' look at the deadly sport is both an eye-opening and jarring read. It reports that an average of 24 horses die every single week on the country's racetracks. Most aren't high-profile losses like that of Eight Belles, who was euthanized at the 2008 Derby after breaking two ankles. They're less expensive horses whose deaths typically go unnoticed, their bodies sent not to a pathologist for examination, but to a rendering plant or dump.
The Times notes that, per Congress, the racing industry was supposed to get tougher on safety after Eight Belles' death. But the paper's analysis of 150,000 races from 2009 to 2011 revealed a risky industry for both horse and rider, in which drugs are ample and regulation is in short supply. Some highlights from its investigation:
- Crowds are thinning, so more racetracks have added casino gambling. The Times explains that this raises the purses, which seems to spur trainers to race unfit horses. Death and injuries have jumped, for instance, at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens since a casino was opened last year.
- Drugs are likely responsible for much of the problem. In a bid to give their horses an edge, trainers will try everything from Viagra to cobra venom to cancer drugs.
- But legal therapeutic drugs are the bigger issue, as they can allow a horse to push hard through pain, exacerbating an injury. In England, horses can't race on such drugs, and their breakdown rate is half what ours is.
- New Mexico was home to five of the six tracks with the country's top rates of breakdown and injury in 2011; the Times says the state is "relatively lenient" when it comes to enforcing drug violations.
investigation is a lengthy one, and worth a read in its entirety