The Ethics of a Horse Race

A horse race is a contest of speed between Thoroughbred horses ridden by jockeys or pulled by sulkies. It is a popular sport in many countries, and there are several major races around the world. Those races are run over a range of distances, depending on the custom of the country. A few of the oldest and most important are four-mile (6.4-kilometer) events. In modern times, however, shorter courses are more common, and winning a horse race depends on both the speed and stamina of the horses.

The death of the filly Eight Belles in 2008 and that of the colt Medina Spirit last year sparked a moment of reckoning about the ethics of the sport. These two champions were just three years old and died under the exorbitant physical stress of racing. They were among a host of horses who died in the sport during their short lives, and the number of young horses dying catastrophically in training and racing is still high.

That’s why the story in The New York Times that PETA released this week, linking the work of the animal-rights group to two of America’s most prominent trainers, came like a thunderclap. Virtually no one beyond racing cares how PETA got the video, for the same reason that no one outside the sport cares how activists get other undercover videos of alleged abuse. What matters is what the video shows, and it is profound.

As a rule, racehorses are inspected in the paddock before they’re saddled and sent onto the track. A team of stewards and patrol judges, aided by a motion-picture camera, watches for any rules violations. When the race starts, a special camera photographs each finish to the nearest one-fifth of a second. In some races, the winning time is measured to the nearest tenth of a second.

When bettors look at a horse in the walking ring before the start of a race, they want to see a bright coat, rippling with sweat and muscled excitement. When a horse balks in the gate, they assume it is frightened or angry. Bettors can also place money on a race by looking at the crowds in the grandstand and the betting booths. If the fans are cheering loudly, the bettors think the horse will win.

When a horse dies in a race or in training, it is normal to mourn it. But to move on and merely pity the next young star to die, while failing to make real reforms in the way that the sport is policed, is a disservice to all of its horses. It is particularly a disservice to the most talented and promising ones.