Horse races are often described as the greatest spectacles in sports and the Kentucky Derby is arguably the most prestigious race in American horse racing. This two-minute race is a dazzling mix of pageantry, mint juleps and 15-1 shots. But this is not typical of the horse racing industry which operates under a patchwork of rules, standards and punishments for trainers and owners.
The sport of horse racing involves a huge amount of skill, insight and massive physical effort from both the jockey and the horse. It is not easy to win a race, and to be successful a jockey must understand the strengths of each individual horse in their care and ride the animal to its best abilities. Short sprint races are a test of speed, while longer distances such as the Grand National are a test of stamina.
While the game of horse racing has largely maintained its traditional charms and traditions, the onset of modern technology has had a profound impact on both the sport and its participants. Until recently, pari-mutuel bets were tallied manually, which was inefficient and made the betting process slow and tedious. This changed in 1984 when computerized betting systems were introduced, making the system more efficient and boosting turnover and attendance significantly.
Despite these advances, the industry is still facing major challenges with regards to the treatment of its horses. While the industry has a long way to go, progress is being made with the implementation of stricter equine health and welfare standards. Horses that are injured or ill now receive the highest level of treatment both on and off the track. Thermal imaging cameras can detect when a horse is overheating, MRI scanners and X-rays are used to diagnose injuries and 3D printing is now used to produce casts, splints and prosthetics for horses.
However, the reality is that a vast majority of horses remain undernourished and stressed both on and off the track. They are pushed to their limits, are forced to run with their mouths open and are subjected to cocktails of legal and illegal drugs designed to mask injury and enhance performance. Many are also bled, a painful and life-threatening condition known as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. After a career on the track, most horses are shipped to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada where they are subjected to cruel conditions and charged arbitrary ransoms for their lives.
The future of the game looks bright, but the industry must address a number of serious issues in order to truly put its horses first. This should involve a deep ideological reckoning on both the macro business and industry levels to prioritize the welfare of its horses. It should mean introducing more humane breeding policies, capping the number of races a horse can be ridden in and instituting an industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for all horses who leave the track. Most importantly, it should mean deciding whether horse racing is worth the cost of putting the well-being of the animals above all else.