A horse treated with cocaine to make it run faster. A jockey with his neck broken in three places. A horse with a broken leg that was euthanized and dumped in a junkyard. These are just a few of the cases discussed by the New York Times this weekend in a major investigation of the dangerous world of horse racing.
According to the Times, 24 horses die every week on average at American racetracks. "These deaths often go unexamined, the bodies shipped to rendering plants and landfills rather than to pathologists who might have discovered why the horses broke down," the Times reports. "A computer analysis of data from more than 150,000 races, along with injury reports, drug test results and interviews, shows an industry still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation and a fatal breakdown rate that remains far worse than in most of the world."
The report blames "the new economics" of racing — which faces declining customers and the need for higher profits — for the increasing rate of horse deaths and criticizes regulators for not doing more to protect the animals or their riders. According to the Times, 6,600 racing horses have broken down or been injured since 2009, while trainers have been caught illegally doping their horses 3,800 times. The paper notes that only a fraction of horses are tested for drugs, so the actual number is probably much higher.
Drugs used to make horses race faster include cocaine, Viagra, cobra venom, stimulants and even cancer medications. Many of these substances do not show up in lab tests. Meanwhile, increased usage of pain medications results in horses running with injuries they cannot feel, further endangering the animals and jockeys.
The risk to the animals varies by state, where local laws permit different drugs, different types of race tracks and races, and horses of different ages to race. Five tracks in New Mexico, four of which are unaccredited, had the highest rates of injury incidents. California was found to have the highest death rate, with at least 635 dead horses in the three-year period. California was the filming location for the HBO racing drama Luck, which was recently cancelled after three horses died during production of the program. The Los Angeles Times reports that Santa Anita Park, where Luck was filmed, had more than double the rate of horse deaths as California's other main thoroughbred tracks.
Separately, the Los Angeles Times also reported that 186 horses died after racing on California tracks during the past fiscal year, either after racing or training accidents. An additional 79 animals died from intestinal or respiratory disease or other causes, according to the state's horse racing board.
The New York State Racing and Wagering Board is investigating the death of 20 horses at that state's Aqueduct racetrack over the past four months.
The problem is not unique to the United States. Animal Aid's Race Horse Death Watch lists more than 800 horses that have died in the UK over the past five years.
Inspired by the New York Times report, a Care2.com petition seeks to ban drugging race horses.
The New York Times also released this video about racehorse fatalities, which includes some shocking and graphic footage: