Kentucky Derby Upcoming: Could Your Next Client Be a Thoroughbred Horse?

Three-year-old filly Eight Belles was euthanized right on the track upon breaking both front ankles in a second-place finish at the 2008 Kentucky Derby (Courtesy: N.Y. Times)

This season marks the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, which has come to be known by race fans as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”  Between animal rights analysts, however, this most popular of horse racing events stands for little more than glorified animal abuse that should be punished with a hard horse kick in the groin rather than rewarded with a blanket of roses, a mint julep, and a large money purse.  Steroid usage, inbreeding, and the undying desire for bragging rights among chic owners in this “sport of kings” has created many health issues for young horses each year.  While the public is well-informed of the champions who have been euthanized and celebrated, no such media attention is given to the many more horses sent to slaughterhouses each year for underperformance.

To enlighten us on the many hot issues associated with horse racing, we sat down with Joyce Tischler, a California attorney who co-founded the Animal Legal Defense Fund over a quarter century ago and has helped shape the emerging field of animal law.  In addition to handling some of the premier cases in the organization’s history, Joyce was ALDF’s executive director for 25 years and now serves as its general counsel, responsible for writing, lecturing on and promoting the field of animal law.  In 2009, The American Bar Association Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section (TIPS) Animal Law Committee honored Joyce with the Excellence in the Advancement of Animal Law Award.

Joyce Tischler and ALDF executive director Stephen Wells standing with Sugar, who is not a race horse

1.  How dangerous is racing for a horse and what regulatory authority exists to minimize risk and protect racing horses from serious injury?

According to statistics recently released in a report by The New York Times, (“Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys,” March 24, 2012) between 2009-2011, approximately 3,600 horses died while racing or training at state regulated horse racing tracks. The largest number of horses died in New York (366), followed by New Mexico (349).

There is no federal regulatory authority and states are left to set their own regulations, which are lax and under-enforced. In 2011, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) and Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced H.R. 1733, the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act, which would prohibit the use of performance enhancing drugs. The bill has not gotten out of committee and has little chance of passage.

In mid-April of this year, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission failed to pass a proposal to ban the use of Furosemide, commonly called Lasix, on race day. The Commission ignored the advice of its own medication committee, which had approved the proposal. Lasix is an anti-bleeding medication and it is regularly used on race horses. Its use it prohibited in many countries, but is common in the U.S.

2.  Thinking back to the 2008 Kentucky Derby with the death of Eight Belles in front of millions of viewers – believed to be the first fatality at this most famous of horse racing events – how has the sport become more dangerous in recent years?

Eight Belles was only three years old when she broke both front ankles after she crossed the finish line at the Derby. She was “euthanized,” in other words, killed, on the spot. Viewers were shocked as they watched this, but should they have been? The reason Eight Belles’ death was even noticed is that she was a winning horse at a high profile race track. Most horse racing is conducted at less prestigious race tracks, where the horses have far less regulatory protection and are more vulnerable to abuse. The recent New York Times state survey showed that each week, at race tracks throughout the U.S., 24 race horses die.

There are several reasons why these horses are dying:

  • The American practice of racing horses at too early of an age (in the U.S. racing often starts at 2 years of age, whereas in other countries, horses’ bodies are allowed to mature for another two years),
  • In the U.S., the use of drugs is legal and widespread. Race horses can be given (to name a few of the drugs) Butazolidin (phenylbutazone) and steroids to numb pain and Lasix to stop bleeding. By using drugs, horse owners and trainers allow injured and/or sick horses to run in a race, rather than allowing the horse to rest and heal. Horses who run more often make more money for their owners, but they also break down more frequently.
  • Too many in the racing industry breed horses for speed, as opposed to physical soundness.
  • Track surfaces can be particularly hard on the horses’ legs.
  • As mentioned above, there is a significant lack of federal or state regulatory oversight of the care and treatment of the horses. There are very few standards to assure their well-being.

In my 33 years as an animal lawyer, the above problems have remained constant and, if anything have gotten worse. The question that must be asked is why the racing industry, racing enthusiasts, the general public and elected officials have not taken effective action to correct these problems.

3.  The 2008 Kentucky Derby also marked another setback for horseracing, amid steroid usage admissions by the event’s winner, Big Brown.  How has steroid usage contributed to the racing-horse health equation?

Steroids, which are outlawed by all European race tracks, are a significant part of the problem, but not the whole package. The racing industry has become dependent on a wide variety of drugs. If pain killers and other drugs are used to help an injured or ailing horse be more comfortable and allow the injury to heal, that is one thing. It is altogether different to be administering drugs to a sick or injured horse in order to improve the horse’s chance to win a race, without regard to the impact on the horse. If the horse is running full speed in a race and cannot feel pain, the potential for breakdown is significantly increased, with, too often, tragic results for both the horse and the jockey.

4.  What problems surface beyond the actual racing stage, such as breeding, maintenance, transportation, and euthanasia/slaughter?

Most race horses are no longer able to compete by the age of 6 or 7. The average life span of a horse is 20-25 years (some live significantly longer). However, once the horse is not racing, he or she is not making money for the owner. Thus, s/he gets sold off to the highest bidder, if any. In some cases, the only willing buyer is the killer buyer, who sends the horse to slaughter.

Americans are engaging in a massive over-breeding of horses in the U.S., thus creating an overpopulation of horses in this country. This results in horses being shipped to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, where they are killed for food. The suffering of these animals, during transport and slaughter is horrific. I recently spoke with Dr. Lester Friedlander, a former USDA slaughterhouse inspector, who told me that horses cannot be humanely slaughtered in a slaughterhouse; they are too skittish and it often takes three or four shots to the head before they become unconscious. The humane way to slaughter a horse is with drugs, but then, the animal may not be used for food .

5.  When an animal is subjected to abuse, who has standing to sue on its (sic) behalf?

Animals are property under the law and property cannot sue on “its” own behalf. In the eyes of the law, a race horse is no different from a race car – a “thing” used for a specific purpose. This status ignores the obvious fact that a horse is not a machine with moving parts. A horse is an intelligent, sentient being, with needs and emotions. None-the-less, the owner of the property, i.e., the horse or the car, can sue for damage to or destruction of the property. Standing to sue is one of the most significant problems we face in our efforts to protect animals, because often, it is the owner of the animal who has caused or acquiesced in the perpetration of the harm done.

In 2011, Ruidoso Downs had the highest incident rate of any track in New Mexico, the state that is one of the worst offenders for overall horse safety. (Courtesy: N.Y. Times)

6.  Many argue that state governments could be in a questionable position; on the one hand they have laws available to prosecute animal abuse cases involving horse racing, but on the other hand, gaming revenue from horse racing can serve as a significant source of tax collection at the state level.  Has this potential conflict of interests posed as the source of any problems?

When human economic interests conflict with the interests of animals, the human interests almost always prevail. States have generally been unwilling to take a hard look at this “cash cow.” Earlier this year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asked that state’s racing association to review the causes of death of twenty horses at the Aqueduct Racetrack between December of 2011 and March of 2012. It will be interesting to see whether the usual white wash occurs or some realistic action results.

7.  Logistically, can the interests of horse-racing enthusiasts and animal rights lobbyists coexist, or are these completely distinct ideologies that are fundamentally at odds with one another?

Answering your question requires a clarification of the distinction between animal “rights” and animal “welfare” or “protection.” A pure animal “rights” activist would call for an end to horse racing, whereas lobbying for improvement in the treatment given to animals is generally carried out by animal protectionists.

There is plenty of room for reform in the care and treatment of race horses and such long overdue improvements would be applauded by animal protectionists. I hope that horse racing enthusiasts would also favor better treatment for the animals. Such improvements should include the end of drug use except for therapeutic reasons (i.e., to benefit the well-being and health of the horse), standards for breeding horses so that they are stronger and more physically able (as opposed to merely faster), use of track surfaces that will reduce injury to the horses, refusing to race horses until they are four years old, and concern for the fate of the horse after his or her racing life is over.

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4 Responses to Kentucky Derby Upcoming: Could Your Next Client Be a Thoroughbred Horse?

  1. Mary King says:

    After spending many years on the backside of the track, I finally got a clue that you could not love horses and race them. I worked with many who were crippled by years of pounding on those hard, uneven surfaces. When I finally left it was after losing a horse that had recovered from a fractured hind leg only to break down, fracturing his sesamoids and having to be euthanized. I don’t even watch the races anymore and I personally think the Derby is one of the MOST dangerous races in America. Too may horses in a too small space can only mean disaster. I actually stopped watching races after Go For Wand was euthanized on the track at the Breeders Cup. Broke both her front legs. Horse racing and breeding is a disgusting excuse to abuse the horses willingness to do what one asks of it. It’s certainly nothing to celebrate.

  2. Angela says:

    Greedy bastards will always run this world and continue to kill all beauty and innocence until there us nothing left. why in the F is that mexican track still open.?? Close it! I think hunters should hunt people and jockeys should ride people, then they can destroy each other and riddance the world of too much trash..

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  4. Gosia says:

    I am not a horse-specialist, but I grew in village environment and I understand and respect all creatures. I do find horce-racing, all these stables in every village and ridng-schools etc. etc. 21st century animal abuse!
    I found this page to prove my young daughter that loving horses does not mean asking parents for giving money for more riding lessons, but to come and support them. At the moment my children are watching “Spirit. The Stallion of the Cimarron” – produced to prove us today the horse was changed into a machine? To entertain people? Long time and a lot of other things to write… I do agree this should be made illegal, like they want Spanish to make bull races illegal etc
    Is there anyone to raise a public concern here? Please…

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