While the world has been focused on a virus racing across the globe, a major story broke, uncovering rampant abuses in the thoroughbred racing industry. The Southern District of New York handed down 27 indictments against trainers, veterinarians and drug distributors (many associated with NY racetracks) alleging widespread doping, all for the purposes of enhancing performance and all at the peril of the equine athletes.
The exposed drug abuse included the use of blood builders to enhance performance through increased muscle growth, pain blockers, allowing an equine to run through the pain (risking debilitating and even deadly consequences), anti-inflammatories to reduce joint pain indicative of a problem, bleeders, used to reduce exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhaging and other drugs used to increase a horse’s stamina and endurance.
These aren’t new charges, In July 2012, testimony provided to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation laid bare the overuse and reliance on performance-related and pain-reducing drugs (not as a therapeutic modality but with the intent to mask pain). In June 2019, testimony provided to the NYS Senate Standing Committee on Racing, Gaming and Wagering revealed the continuance of such practices and, while Lasix (to control bleeding in the lungs), phenylbutazone (an anti-inflammatory), and corticosteroids (for pain and inflammation) may be legal at many tracks, drugs that mask pain without addressing an underlying problem set innocent horses up for disastrous injury and death. According to the American Jockey Club Injury Database, “Nearly 10 horses a week, on average, died at American racetracks in 2018 …a fatality rate that is anywhere from two and a half to five times greater than in the rest of the racing world.”
If they survive the abuses of the industry, the fate that awaits them once they’ve been deemed too broken to run, is often worse. According to a 2015 NYS Gaming Commission report, over 50% of racing Thoroughbreds are presumed slaughtered. In 2019, the USDA (US Department of Agriculture), reported that more than 57,000 horses were shipped to Canada and Mexico for human consumption, their lives selling for about 60 cents a pound. They have also documented that 92.3% of horses sent to slaughter are in good physical condition and capable of productive lives.
When is enough, enough? When do we stop turning a blind eye to the abuses? Now, finally? For years the industry has been relatively silent on the abuses, but even world-renowned trainers, such as Bob Baffert, James Bond and Jack Knowlton are joining the calls for reform. Baffert, recently noted his support for a federal initiative – The Horseracing Integrity Act (HIA) which is moving through Congress and if enacted, would create a private, non-profit federal body – the Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority – with the expertise to set national drug policies, procedures and penalties. “I held off supporting the Horseracing Integrity Act because I questioned whether the benefits of creating a new layer of federal regulation would outweigh the burdens, however, these indictments convinced me that horse racing needs immediate and drastic action to fix a broken system.”
Here in NYS, HORSEPOWER, Inc., a new organization devoted to equine policy, calls upon policymakers to take these indictments seriously and work toward meaningful reforms. Many legislative proposals have sat idle for years, among the bills awaiting attention when the legislature reconvenes are S.1976, which would prohibit the use of performance enhancing drugs in horseracing, and a new bill, S.7719/ A. 9989, which encompasses several older proposals and includes additional provisions to protect thoroughbreds such as prohibiting the slaughter of racehorses and their stock for consumption, mandates microchipping, and provides for an aftercare fund (crucial to rehabilitation, retraining and rehoming efforts).
It is within the realm of possibility to honor and protect equine welfare and still allow for equine participation in sport, so long as the latter is preceded by stronger regulations and more humane approaches to care.
Karin Carreau, co-founder
Contact: Karin Carreau
Images available on request