Horse races aren’t just a sport — they’re also a massive public entertainment business, one that relies on millions of spectators and wagering dollars. But the sport is in trouble, and it’s not just because of the decline in betting. New would-be fans are also put off by reports of animal cruelty and safety concerns. A new generation of Americans, including many young people in their 20s and 30s, is not interested in spending their money or time on a sport that makes its living by making animals suffer.
As a result, the race industry has been losing customers for years and is facing an uphill battle to attract them. In addition, other forms of gambling are gaining popularity among younger people and may have sucked some race fans away. “It’s a very mature market, and the sport isn’t growing,” says an analyst for IBISWorld.
The horse race has a long and complex history, but its basic concept hasn’t changed much: two horses compete to see who can finish the fastest and furthest. Over the centuries, the game has developed from a primitive contest of speed and stamina into a modern spectacle that includes large fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money.
Despite the industry’s claim that horses are “born to run, love to compete,” the truth is that the natural world bears no resemblance to what these animals endure on a racetrack. Horses are often forced to run at high speeds over hard surfaces with little preparation or rest, and they begin training or racing while their skeletons are still developing. This combination of stress, strain and skeletal weakness has led to an epidemic of injury and even death for many racehorses.
Many of the injuries come from a collision between the horse’s legs and the track, but some are caused by other factors. For example, a horse that runs on a concrete surface is at greater risk of breaking bones in its lower legs because the bone is more likely to fracture under extreme stress. Other common injuries include fractures of the long and short pastern bones, a fractured fetlock joint, and severe burns from being hit by a rider.
A common way to reduce the likelihood of an accident is to limit the number of runners to a manageable number. But some races feature thousands of competitors, and it is not possible to check each animal’s medical records.
In recent years, the race industry has responded to a chorus of criticism by adopting dozens of safety rules. Congress has also passed legislation requiring the industry to adhere to stricter safety standards. But these changes haven’t made a significant difference in the overall rate of race-related deaths. The truth is that there has never been a real evolution of the race business model with the horses’ welfare as its top priority. Instead, there are three groups of horsemen and women: the crooks who dangerously drug or otherwise abuse their animals; the dupes who labor under the fantasy that horse racing is generally fair and honest; and those in the middle, honorable souls who know that the sport is far more crooked than it ought to be but haven’t figured out how to fix it.