The Truth About the Horse Race

Horse race is a term that’s as old as horses themselves. The word is used in a myriad of contexts to mean a close contest, a political contest or even a close presidential election. It’s a catchy phrase that’s often repeated by pundits, political observers and journalists of all stripes, but it’s not exactly the truth about what is actually happening.

The reality is that horses are being dragged, against their wills, through an unnatural act that bears no resemblance to the way they play and work in nature. Their bodies are being subjected to the stress of a sport that is not only unethical, but also dangerous for them. Horses are dying at an alarming rate, due to cardiovascular collapse, heart failure and pulmonary hemorrhage — all from animals that are still in their teens, still prone to the kind of head trauma that can cause ruptured spines and shattered bones. And all the while, a tiny handful of independent nonprofit rescue groups network and fundraise to save them from an uncertain fate that often includes a trough of mutilating and deadly euthanasia drugs.

When it comes to the horse race, the truth is a lot more complicated and expensive than simply re-examining a few rules. In fact, the entire sport needs to have a profound ideological reckoning that would involve a complete restructuring from top to bottom to prioritize the welfare of the horses. That would include a holistic approach to breeding, limiting how many years a horse can run and integrating a wraparound aftercare solution for all horses that end their racing careers.

One of the first steps the industry could take is to put its money where its mouth is and stop funding and participating in the kind of corrupt and dishonest practices that have tainted the sport for generations. That would include a full audit of the racing commission’s financial records and a thorough investigation into the way the sport has abused its horses for decades.

Several years ago, on the day of the Preakness, I stood in the starting gate watching horses parade through the paddock and up to the gates. The stewards looked on carefully to ensure the horses were who they were supposed to be. Then they stepped aside and the jockeys, as they are called, walked up to each horse. They examined the animal’s coat, looking for a bright rippling that meant it was ready to run.

The favored horse, War of Will, broke cleanly from the gate and began to pull away from the pack. But then Mongolian Groom, a dark bay, halted in front of him. I watched the horse look back at me with a confused expression and then his rider, Abel Cedillo, try to nudge him forward. A few strides later, Mongolian Groom surged past the leader, McKinzie, and into the lead. The crowd cheered, but the horse was clearly exhausted. He was a long shot to win and his body language suggested he knew it.