There are three kinds of people in horse racing. There are the crooks who dangerously drug their horses and dare the industry to catch them. There are the dupes who labor under the fantasy that the sport is broadly fair and honest. And then there are the masses in the middle—neither naive nor cheaters but honorable souls who know that the industry is more crooked than it ought to be but still don’t give their all to stop it. It’s this group that needs to come to terms with the fact that serious reform is needed if horse racing is going to survive and thrive.
In 2020 Congress decided that it was unwilling to watch animals die for the sake of entertainment, so it imposed new standards and began monitoring and enforcing them. The industry has been slow to embrace change, but it is making progress, and the rate of equine fatalities has been falling for the past five years.
But there is a dark side to the sport, and it’s not just the abuses that occur at many racetracks. In the world of breeding, there are rampant cases of mishandling and neglect of young horses, and it is a growing problem in racing. Then there are the countless horse deaths on the road to and from the track, as well as the fate of a great many American horses that end up in foreign slaughterhouses.
Fortunately, the public is increasingly aware of these problems, which has driven improvements at some tracks. But racing’s reputation continues to deteriorate, and it will need to take drastic steps to repair it.
The day of the Preakness, in early May, eleven horses blinked into the pinkish light of a Maryland sky. War of Will, that year’s Preakness champion, took the lead from the gate. But as the pack entered the backstretch, you could see that he was tiring and that McKinzie and Mongolian Groom were gaining ground fast.
In the head of the stretch, McKinzie sprinted to the lead, and on the far turn, the chestnut colt made a powerful move that forced War of Will to speed up. As the leaders sped up, they were joined by six or seven other horses, all moving with hypnotic smoothness and huge strides that left you gasping. It was a dazzling sight, but it would have been miserable to be in the middle of this pack, kicking dirt up into your face. On the backstretch, you’d be soaking wet and covered in sweat, with nothing to see but hordes of horses and their riders. It’s no wonder that most horses prefer to be near the front.