The Dark Side of Horse Racing Revealed

horse race

Horse racing is a global industry and one of the most popular sports, but it has a dark side. Reckless breeding and doping, compromised veterinarians and trainers, and decades-long resistance to changes that could save horses’ lives have placed a multibillion-dollar ecosystem in peril. The New York Times has analyzed confidential documents, covert recordings, and exclusive interviews to expose the many ways that horses — supposedly in peak physical condition — are breaking down and dying before they get around the track.

Hundreds of thousands of people will fill the grandstands and watch the steeds run in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. To ensure this year’s race is safe, an army of veterinarians will pore over months of medical records with the critical eye of a diamond jeweler, high-tech motion sensors will monitor the horses, and an old-fashioned bucket brigade will be sent to pick up rocks that may have been thrown by other horses.

Before the race begins, the horses are weighed and paraded through the paddock, where an official can verify their identities. Then they are injected with a drug called Lasix, which is marked on the racing form with a boldface “L.” It’s a diuretic that has been used for decades to prevent pulmonary bleeding caused by hard running in a small percentage of thoroughbreds. It also causes them to unload epic amounts of urine — up to twenty or thirty pounds’ worth.

Then the jockeys mount the horses and the stewards and patrol judges, assisted by a camera squad, check for rule infractions. Saliva and urine samples are also taken from the winning horses, who have been known to take banned drugs. If a horse is disqualified, it’s often because of Lasix use or because its jockey failed to wear a helmet.

As the day of the Derby draws near, the race industry’s legions of apologists will do their best to deflect criticism by attacking the messenger, in this case The Times and PETA. But it’s a mistake to conflate hostility toward PETA with dismissing the work it does. Virtually no one beyond racing cares how PETA gets its undercover video of alleged abuse; they care only about what it says.

The horse racing industry has a long history of using illegal drugs to give its stars an edge over their rivals and stay competitive with each other. It has been documented since ancient times, with archeological evidence of the sport in Greece, Rome, Babylon, Syria, Egypt, and Arabia. In the modern era, drugs like furosemide (Lasix) and phenytoin have been employed to reduce the pain and discomfort of training and racing. The drugs are sometimes abused or mistreated, but they are effective and widely available. And because of the way racing is organized, it has been difficult to stop the rot even when there’s clear evidence of wrongdoing. The story of how the industry has reached this point – a tale of reckless breeding and doping practices, compromised vets and trainers, and decades-long denial of the necessity of reform – is laid out in The New York Times documentary “Broken Horses.” It is now streaming on Hulu.