Death and injuries are not uncommon occurrences in horse racing, and some animal welfare advocates argue that the sport can be humane if certain changes are made. But to animal rights activists, the issue is not the cruelty and danger; it's about whether we have a right to use horses for entertainment.
The Horse Racing Industry
The form of gambling at horse racetracks is called "parimutuel betting," which is explained as:
The entire money bet on the event goes into a large pool. The holders of winning tickets divide the total amount of money bet on the race (the pool), after deductions for tax and racetrack expenses. The money take out is similar to the rake taken out by the pot in a poker game played in the card room. However unlike the small rake in poker, in the parimutuel pool this “rake” can amount to 15 – 25 percent of the total prize pool.
In various U.S. states, bills have been considered and sometimes passed either allowing racetracks to have other forms of gambling or protecting racetracks from competition from casinos. As gambling has become more accessible in recent years through new casinos and online gambling websites, racetracks are losing customers. According to a 2010 article in the Star Ledger in New Jersey:
This year, the Meadowlands Racetrack and Monmouth Park will lose upwards of $20 million as fans and bettors have migrated to tracks in New York and Pennsylvania with slot machines and other casino games. Pressure from Atlantic City casinos have prevented the "racino" model from taking hold here, and the tracks have suffered. Daily attendance at the Meadowlands routinely hit 16,500 in its first year. Last year, the average daily crowd was below 3,000.
To counter these losses, racetracks have been lobbying to be allowed to have slot machines or even full-blown casinos. In some cases, the slot machines are owned and operated by the government, with a cut going to the racetrack.
One might wonder why a government body would be concerned about supporting racetracks instead of allowing them to perish like other outdated industries. Each racetrack is a multi-million dollar economy, supporting hundreds of jobs including everyone from breeders, jockeys, veterinarians, farmers who grow hay and feed, and blacksmiths who do the horseshoeing.
The financial forces behind racetracks are the reason they continue to exist, despite concerns about animal cruelty, gambling addictions and gambling morality.
Animal Rights and Horse Racing
The animal rights position is that animals have a right to be free of human use and exploitation, regardless of how well the animals are treated. Breeding, selling, buying and training horses or any animal violates that right. Cruelty, slaughter and accidental deaths and injuries are additional reasons to oppose horse racing. As an animal rights organization, PETA recognizes that certain precautions can reduce deaths and injuries, but categorically opposes horse racing.
Animal Welfare and Horse Racing
The animal welfare position is that there is nothing wrong with horse racing per se, but more should be done to protect the horses. The Humane Society of the United States does not oppose all horse racing, but opposes certain cruel or dangerous practices.
Cruel and Dangerous Horse Racing Practices
According to PETA, "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 estimated that 3 thoroughbreds die every day in North America because of catastrophic injuries during races." Pushing a horse to his physical limits and forcing him to run around a racetrack is enough to cause accidents and injuries, but other practices make the sport particularly cruel and dangerous.
Horses are sometimes raced when they are under three years old and their bones are not strong enough, leading to fractures that can lead to euthanasia. Horses are also drugged to help them compete with injuries, or given prohibited performance enhancing drugs. Jockeys often whip the horses as they approach the finish line for an extra burst of speed. Racetracks made of hard, packed dirt are more dangerous that those with grass.
To some, horses are a pet; to others, a living piece of farm equipment. To the horse-racing industry, though, the thoroughbred is a lottery ticket. The racing industry breeds thousands of losing tickets while looking for its next champion.
Just as farmers cannot afford to care for "spent" egg-laying hens when they get old, race horse owners are not in the business of feeding and keeping losing horses. Even winning horses are not spared from the slaughterhouse: "Decorated racers like Ferdinand, a Kentucky Derby winner, and Exceller, who won more than $1 million in purse money, were retired to stud. But after they failed to produce champion offspring, they were slaughtered." While there are rescue groups and sanctuaries for retired race horses, there are not enough.
Horse breeders argue that horse slaughter is a necessary evil, but it wouldn't be "necessary" if the breeders stopped breeding.
From an animal rights perspective, money, jobs and tradition are powerful forces keeping the horse racing industry alive, but they cannot justify the exploitation and suffering of the horses. And while animal advocates make the ethical arguments against horse racing, this dying sport may pass away on its own.
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