The New York Times Presents: Broken Horses

horse race

A horse race is a competition for horses, usually over an oval track, where betting on the winner takes place. It has evolved into a spectacle involving large fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment and immense sums of money. Its essential feature, though, remains the same: The horse that crosses the finish line first is declared the winner. The term can also be used to refer to a close and highly competitive contest of any kind, including a political race.

The New York Times has gathered secret documents, covert recordings and exclusive interviews in an investigation that explores why so many horses, supposedly in peak physical condition, break down and often die. The findings—which are the basis for a documentary streaming on Hulu called “The New York Times Presents: Broken Horses”—have placed a multibillion-dollar ecosystem in peril and put one of the world’s oldest sports at risk of losing its social acceptability.

Reckless breeding and doping practices, compromised veterinarians and trainers, decades-long resistance to changes that could save horses’ lives, and the industry’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of a deadly disease have all contributed to the crisis. In the film, The Times shows how an American Thoroughbred named Havnameltdown died from a debilitating illness that he and his trainers never knew about. Havnameltdown was a six-year-old horse that raced in a 3-mile (4-km) heat, and his death was the result of the excessive wear and tear on his body from repeated runs and jumps.

Havnameltdown was a “bleeder,” which means he had lesions in each of his fetlocks, a condition that is caused by repetitive stress injury. Bleeders are prone to exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH), which can be fatal. To mitigate this hazard, many horses are injected with a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs designed to mask injuries and enhance performance. As dash racing became the standard, a few yards of advantage in a race quickly became a matter of life or death for horses.

Horse racing sells a narrative that depicts a gritty group of horses locked in a gripping pursuit of Triple Crown glory. But trophies, money and adulation are human-made abstractions that mean little to horses. The main concern of any horse is survival, which means avoiding pain and fear. The instinct to flee from human-induced stress is what makes it so hard for horses to resist the demands of handlers.