Following a four-month PETA investigation, the New York State Gaming Commission has just announced that it is looking into the rampant misuse of drugs and other abuses in the state's thoroughbred racing industry. PETA's investigator documented chronic misuse of painkillers and other prescription medications apparently to mask horses' injuries and enhance their performance as well as apparent flagrant violations of U.S. labor laws. The racing industry doesn't care whom it exploits-whether it's the horses or workers-and it's long past time for authorities to step in and clean up the so-called "sport of kings."
As was reported in The New York Times, from April to August 2013, a PETA investigator worked for leading thoroughbred trainer Steve Asmussen-who has won more races in the last decade than any other U.S. trainer and was just nominated to the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame-at Churchill Downs in Kentucky and the Saratoga Race Course in New York.
PETA's investigation captured groundbreaking video evidence of the routine, pervasive and improper use of prescription drugs during training, a regimen that begins the downward spiral to the slaughterhouse for thousands of horses. Veterinarians and stable hands alike, apparently on Asmussen's orders, gave horses an aggressive daily regimen of pain-masking and performance-enhancing drugs and treatments. These drugs often aren't used for genuinely therapeutic purposes. They're used to force injured and exhausted animals to keep running through the pain. It's not a coincidence that U.S. race horses have been dubbed "chemical horses."
One of Asmussen's drugs of choice was thyroxine. Although it's approved only as a prescription medication for horses with hypothyroidism, the drug was being administered to every horse in his barns, apparently without evidence of any thyroid condition. This drug seems to have been recklessly administered just to speed up metabolism.
Horses in Asmussen's Saratoga stables were also given Lasix, which dehydrates the animals and makes them lighter and faster. This drug is legal to use in New York to prevent bleeding in the lungs-but not to shave a few seconds off a horse's running time. Lasix is banned on race day in Europe.
To compound the problems, fragile young horses are raced before their bones and knees have fully matured. These horses are unable to handle the pounding and stress, and they routinely suffer from injuries, lameness, exhaustion and what is euphemistically called "soreness"-all of which increase breakdown potential. And in the racing world, breakdown is often a death sentence. On average, two dozen horses suffer catastrophic breakdowns every week at racetracks across the U.S.
PETA's investigator also witnessed the routine drugging of horses with muscle relaxants, sedatives and other potent pharmaceuticals. According to a trainer, one horse's legs were burned with liquid nitrogen, and other horses were blistered with chemical paint, purportedly to stimulate blood flow to their sore legs, leaving multiple scars. Continually sore horses were trained and raced and weren't allowed adequate time to recover from injury. Even Nehro, the horse who finished second in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, was forced to race on hole-ridden, chronically painful hooves that were held together with superglue and filler. And on and on.
We also found that many undocumented laborers were hired and forced to work long hours for little pay in difficult, dangerous jobs. Some of Asmussen's employees- approximately 90 percent of whom are from Mexico or Central or South America-may have been issued fake Social Security cards and forced to use false names on Internal Revenue Service forms.
PETA's investigation should be a wake-up call to racing fans. Even at this top level, the syringe and pill bottle are the main training tools in thoroughbred racing. PETA has filed 10 legal complaints with both federal and state agencies, but everyone reading this can also make a difference: Simply refuse to patronize or bet on horse races.