The Horseracing Industry: Drugs, Deception and Death





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by All-creatures

Racehorses are the victims of a multibillion-dollar industry that is rife with drug abuse, injuries, and race fixing, and many horses’ careers end in slaughterhouses. 

The Starting Gate

Racehorses can cost millions of dollars and are often purchased by syndicates, which may be composed of thousands of members.(3,4) There are also trainers, handlers, veterinarians, and jockeys involved, so a horse is rarely able to develop any kind of bond with one person or with other horses. Racehorses travel from country to country, state to state, and racetrack to racetrack, so few horses are able to call one place “home.” Most do not end up in the well-publicized races but are instead trucked, shipped, or flown to the thousands of other races that take place all over the country every year.

Racing to the Grave

Horses begin training or are already racing when their skeletal systems are still growing and are unprepared to handle the pressures of running on a hard track at high speeds.(5) Improved medical treatment and technological advancements have done little to remedy the plight of the racehorse. One study on injuries at racetracks concluded that one horse in every 22 races suffered an injury that prevented him or her from finishing a race, while another estimates that 800 thoroughbreds die each year in North America because of injuries.(6) Strained tendons or hairline fractures can be tough for veterinarians to diagnose, and the damage may go from minor to irreversible at the next race or workout. Horses do not handle surgery well, as they tend to be disoriented when coming out of anesthesia, and they may fight casts or slings, possibly causing further injury. Many are euthanized in order to save the owners further veterinary fees and other expenses on horses who can’t race again.

Given the huge investment that owning a horse requires, reported one Kentucky newspaper, “simply sending one to pasture, injured or not, is not an option all owners are willing to consider.”(7) Care for a single racehorse can cost as much as $50,000 per year.(8) When popular racehorse Barbaro suffered a shattered ankle at the beginning of the 2006 Preakness, his owners spared no expense for his medical needs, but as The New York Times reported, “[M]any in the business have noted that had Barbaro not been the winner of the Kentucky Derby, he might have been destroyed after being injured.”(9) Compare Barbaro’s story to that of Magic Man, who stepped into an uneven section of a track and broke both front legs during a race at Saratoga Race Course. His owner had bought him for $900,000, yet the horse hadn’t earned any money yet and—unproven on the track—wasn’t worth much as a stud, so he was euthanized.(10) Joseph Dirico, the owner of a filly who suffered a heart attack and died mid-race at Pimlico only days after the Preakness, said of her death, “I guess that’s part of the game.”(11)

Drugs and Deception

“Finding an American racehorse trained on the traditional hay, oats, and water probably would be impossible,” commented one reporter.(12) Many racehorses become addicted to drugs when their trainers and even veterinarians give them drugs to keep them on the track when they shouldn’t be racing.

Which drugs are legal varies from state to state, with Kentucky holding the reputation as the most lenient state.(13) The New York Sun explained that because “thoroughbreds are bred for flashy speed and to look good in the sales ring … the animal itself has become more fragile” and that “to keep the horses going,” they’re all given Lasix (which controls bleeding in the lungs), phenylbutazone (an anti-inflammatory), and cortiscosteroids (for pain and inflammation).(14) Those drugs, although legal, can also mask pain or make a horse run faster. Labs cannot detect all the illegal drugs out there, of which there “could be thousands,” says the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.(15) Morphine, which can keep a horse from feeling any pain from an injury, was suspected in the case of Be My Royal, who won a race while limping.(16) One trainer was suspended for using an Ecstasy-type drug in five horses, and another has been kicked off racetracks for using clenbuterol and, in one case, for having the leg of a euthanized horse cut off “for research.”(17,18) A New York veterinarian and a trainer faced felony charges when the body of a missing racehorse turned up at a farm and authorities determined that her death had been caused by the injection of a “performance-enhancing drug.”(19)

“There are trainers pumping horses full of illegal drugs every day,” says a former Churchill Downs public relations director. (20) “With so much money on the line, people will do anything to make their horses run faster.”

Even the ‘Winners’ Lose

Few racehorses are retired to pastures for pampering and visits from caring individuals.

An insurance scandal cost the life of Alydar, who came in second in all three races of the 1978 Triple Crown and fathered many fast horses. After being retired from racing in order to serve as a stud at a Kentucky farm, Alydar was originally believed to have shattered his leg by kicking a stall door and was euthanized when he wasn’t able to maintain a splint.(21) Ten years later, an FBI investigation revealed that his leg was deliberately broken when it was tied by a rope to a pickup truck.(22)

Ferdinand, a Derby winner and Horse of the Year in 1987, was retired to Claiborne Farms and then changed hands at least twice before being “disposed of” in Japan; a reporter covering the story concluded, “No one can say for sure when and where Ferdinand met his end, but it would seem clear he met it in a slaughterhouse.”(23) Exceller, a million-dollar racehorse who was inducted into the National Racing Museum’s Hall of Fame, was killed at a Swedish slaughterhouse.(24)

The United States has a multimillion-dollar horsemeat export business and slaughters tens of thousands of horses every year.(25,26) Although horsemeat is not consumed in the United States, it is eaten in Europe and Asia, and more than 1,000 tons of it is sold to U.S. zoos in order to feed animals there.(27) One Colorado State University study found that of 1,348 horses sent to slaughter, 58 were known to be former racehorses.(28)

There are three equine slaughterhouses left in the U.S., two in Texas and one in Illinois, so most horses who are sent to those facilities from other states are forced to endure days of transport in cramped trailers.(29) Usually, there is no access to water or food, and injuries are common: A University of California, Davis, study of 306 horses destined for slaughter found that 60 of them sustained injuries during transport.(30) While veterinarians recommend that horses be offloaded for food and water every four hours while traveling, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows horses to be shipped for 28 hours without a break.(31) Horses are subject to the same method of slaughter as cows, but since horses are generally not accustomed to being herded, they tend to thrash about in order to avoid the pneumatic gun that is supposed to render them unconscious before their throats are cut.(32)

What You Can Do

In a commentary on the racing industry, a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News remarked, “It is not something they talk about much in their advertising, but horses die in this sport all the time—every day, every single day.”(33) Help phase out this exploitative “sport”: Refuse to patronize existing tracks, work to ensure that racing regulations are reformed and enforced, lobby against the construction of new tracks, and educate your friends and family members about the tragic lives that racehorses lead.


1.   Ted Miller, “Six Recent Horse Deaths at Emerald Downs Spark Concern,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer 8 May 2001.
2.   Bill Finley, “Sadly, No Way to Stop Deaths,” New York Daily News 10 Jun. 1993.
3.   Sherry Ross, “Fans Are Buying In,” Daily News 1 Jun. 2003.
4.    “The Odds Are You’ll Lose: Owning a Racehorse,” Financial Times 1 Feb. 2003.
5.   Glenn Robertson Smith, “Why Racehorses Are Cracking Up,” The Age (Australia) 15 Nov. 2002.
6.   Miller.
7.   Tim Reynolds, “Technology Can’t Prevent Horse Injuries,” The Lexington Herald-Leader 30 Aug. 2001.
8.   Andrew Beyer, “A Beyer’s Guide for Racehorses,” The Washington Post 3 Jun. 2003.
10.  Rhoden.
11.  Reynolds.
12.  John Scheinman, “Horses, Drugs Are Racing’s Daily Double; No Uniform Policy in Industry,” The Washington Post 27 Apr. 2003.
13.  Janet Patton, “HBPA Proposes Uniform Policy on Drugs in Racing; Horsemen’s Group Targets Maze of State Rules,” The Lexington Herald-Leader 17 Oct. 2001.
14.  Max Watman, “So Far, So Good for Barbaro,” The New York Sun 21 May 2006.
15.  Scheinman.
16.  Peat Bee, “Cut the Poppycock and Treat Drugs With Horse Sense,” The Guardian 13 Jan. 2003.
17.  Alex Straus, “Dark Horses,” Maxim May 2002.
18.  Tom Keyser, “Gill Is Still Permitted to Stable, Race Horses at Pimlico, Laurel,” The Baltimore Sun 6 Apr. 2003.
19.  “Trainer, Vet Charged in Trotter’s Death,” Associated Press, 22 Apr. 2001.
20.  Straus.
21.  Skip Hollandsworth, “The Killing of Alydar,” Texas Monthly Jun. 2001.
22.  Straus.
23.  Barbara Bayer, “1986 Kentucky Derby Winner Ferdinand Believed to Have Been Slaughtered in Japan,” The Blood-Horse Magazine 26 Jul. 2003.
24.  Allen G. Breed, “And What of the Spent Racehorse?” Associated Press, 25 Nov. 1999.
25.  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Horsemeat Exports—Value,” 2004.
26.  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Horsemeat Slaughtered/Prod Animals (Head),” 2005.
27.  Josh Harkinson, “Horse Flesh: Texas Struggles With What to Do With Its Overabundance of Equus Caballus While Europeans Wait With Open Mouths,” Houston Press 13.  Apr. 2006.
28.  K. McGee et al., “Characterizations of Horses at Auctions and in Slaughter Plants,” Colorado State University Department of Animal Sciences, 2001.
29.  Todd J. Gillman, “Judge Won’t Stop Slaughterhouses; Appeal Weighed,” The Dallas Morning News 14 Mar. 2006.
30.  C.L. Stull, “Responses of Horses to Trailer Design, Duration, and Floor Area During Commercial Transportation to Slaughter,” Journal of Animal Science 77 (1999): 2925-33.
31.  Harkinson.
32.  Kris Axtman, “Horse-Meat Sales Stir Texas Controversy,” Christian Science Monitor 28 Apr. 2003.
33.  Rich Hofmann, “Racing Brings Up the Rear in Safety,” Philadelphia Daily News 23 May 2006.

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