Today is the first Saturday in May, when I watch my first horse race of the year, the Kentucky Derby. This is the first race in the competition for the Triple Crown - a trophy which has not been awarded since 1978! While not an expert on horse racing (I have watched three horse races a year for the past 12 years or so), I do own a horse (see right) and have spent plenty of time discussing the ins-and-outs of horse industry ethics. So, while you are mixing your mint juleps and picking out the perfect hat, here are some of the top issues facing racehorses and their riders.
1. Racing young horses can be physically destructive. The Kentucky Derby races three year-old Thoroughbreds, a breed which is not physically mature until age four or five. Moreover, age is determined based on January 1st of the year of foaling, so the horses racing today are actually between the ages of two and three, and have already been fully trained and run many races to qualify. This means that they are actively racing well before three years of age on bones that are not fully developed. Is it any wonder then that these young horses (babies!) receive fatal injuries on the track, as favorites Eight Belles and Barbaro did in recent years? This does not even go into the long-term health and soundness implications of putting a horse through such intense work at a young age. To give some perspective on how young these animals really are, the average, healthy Thoroughbred lives to its mid-thirties.
2. Racehorses are often treated as disposable objects. There is a lot of money in horse racing, and the horses themselves are often treated as commodities. Although this attitude is unsurprising in a world of dog fighting, bull fights, and factory farming, it is still deeply troubling. Horses, like many of the animals we use, are capable of feeling both physical and psychological distress, and we are ethically obligated to limit that as much as possible. The racing industry has not done this. Last year more than 200 racehorses died in California alone, and track-related deaths are much higher when you look nation-wide.
3. Jockeys face abuses and low pay. Although horse racing is a lucrative sport for some, the jockeys do not share many of the spoils. Jockeys typically make $40 - $50 per race, with the possibility of getting 1 - 6% of the purse if they win. Being a jockey is very dangerous, with the possibility of severe injuries and even death if there is an accident on the track. Jockeys also face extreme pressure to stay at minimum weights for races (126 lbs for colts in todays race), and often suffer eating disorders and take extreme measures to drop pounds.
All of these issues could be easily solved, and the industry should take action. Raising the age for races might delay the rise in a horse's breeding, but could also result in longer useful breeding lives. Someone should be held responsible for the lives of the horses after their racing careers have finished. The Jockeys' Guild needs to push harder for their members and get buy-in from other stakeholders to improve safety and pay.
I will certainly be watching (and drinking!) for those exciting two minutes today at 5:00. My enjoyment of the sport is tainted by these abuses, however, and I hope that the public will pressure the industry to get its act together. I would like to one day be able to enjoy the magnificence of these equine athletes with a completely clear conscience.