20 min read

For The Horses, Everything Isn't Juleps And Roses At The Derby

<p> <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kentucky_Derby_2014_finish.jpg">Wikimedia</a> </p>

Oozing with style and tradition, the 141st Kentucky Derby will be watched Saturday by millions of people cheering on a line of astoundingly powerful horses blazing around the track.

Underneath all the fanfare, however, there's a troubling industry.

"There's an unconscionably high" number of horses dying on the nation's racetracks every year, according to Keith Dane, vice president of equine protection at the Humane Society of the United States. According to the Jockey Club Equine Injury Database, at least 583 thoroughbreds suffered fatalities within 72 hours of their races in 2014. And those are the deaths that are reported, Dane emphasizes. These numbers do not include fatalities endured during training, or non-thoroughbred horses. Nor do all tracks voluntarily participate in the database system.

In fact, a 2012 seminal New York Times series about the horse racing industry found 24 horses were dying on racetracks in the U.S. every week.

As the Kentucky Derby comes ever closer, here is a quick glimpse at just a few of the most prominent deaths or injuries in horse racing:

Wikimedia

Ruffian, "Queen of the Fillies"

She snapped her front right leg at Belmont Park, Long Island on July 6, 1975 (watch a documentary here). She was shuttled into surgery, but was ultimately euthanized. Ruffian was only 3 years old.

Barbaro

The extraordinary Barbaro was injured on May 20, 2006, at the Preakness. He withstood numerous operations and survived eight more months. He suffered from a disease that affects horses called laminitis (read an excellent Smithsonian article about Barbaro here). He was euthanized on January 29, 2007.

Eight Belles

Eight Belles ran the Kentucky Derby in 2008. She broke both front ankles on the course. Because she was unable to even be transported into an ambulance, she was euthanized on the racetrack.

Racehorse Memorial Wall Worldwide is a site that attempts to monitor all deaths of racehorses via independent research as well as the help of the public. For example, according to the memorial database, four horses died on Feb. 14. Two died on April 12. One died less than a week ago.

A compendium of the horses' deaths on the Racehorse Memorial Wall Worldwide can be found here.

Drugs and slaughterDrugs are a major contributor to horse deaths, Dane says.Some drugs, like painkillers, are used to mask pain. "If a horse is running with an injury but can't feel pain due to the drugs used, that injury can be exacerbated, leading to breakdowns," he says. "A pain-masking drug known as phenylbutazone is given ubiquitously to racehorses; it's the equine equivalent of aspirin."And others drugs are used to enhance performance. "The drug furosemide, commonly known as Salix - formerly Lasix - is believed to be given to over 90 percent of racehorses, whether they need it or not," Dane explains. "It's purported intended use is to prevent racehorses from bleeding in the lungs, but it's also a diuretic which causes horses to lose water weight and run faster."There are other drugs as well, says Dane, including including steroids, cocaine and cobra venom.In April, four veterinarians were found guilty of administering drugs to horses before a race at Penn National Race Track in Grantville, Pennsylvania.As disconcerting - or shocking - as the drugging or doping of the horses may be, one of the "most reprehensible" aspects of the horse racing industry, claims Dane, is the number of thoroughbreds who ultimately end up in a slaughterhouse. A 2011 Forbes news storyreported 10,000 thoroughbreds a year were shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.Dane explains that currently, it is impossible to slaughter horses commercially for human consumption in the U.S. since Congress defunded inspections of horse slaughter plants. But they can still be exported overseas.Ferdinand's storyIn fact, this was the fate of Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby and one of the most famous racing horses in history."As a racehorse, Ferdinand won eight of 29 starts and earned $3,777,978, retiring as what was then the fifth leading money winner of all time," reported one article. Ferdinand was also hailed as one of the top 10 Kentucky Derby performances of all time by the Sporting News).But shockingly, after all his glory, his presumed fate was at a Japanese slaughterhouse in 2002. In an emotional article tracing the final years of Ferdinand, journalist Barbara Bayer interviewed a Japanese horse groom. The groom told Bayer that Ferdinand was "the gentlest horse you could imagine. He'd come over when I called to him in the pasture. And anyone could have led him with just a halter on him. ... He'd come over to me and press his head up against me. He was so sweet." (You can see a photo of Ferdinand here.)Dane says Ferdinand is now a poster child for the anti-horse slaughter advocates. And there are those within the racing industry who also want reform. "There are some tracks that have instituted practices that if you send your horse to slaughter, you will lose your privileges at the track," but that is the exception rather than the rule, Dane adds."The career of a racehorse is only a few years long," notes Dane. "But their lives can be 25 to 30 years. We feel strongly that we owe these horses more.""What other athletes," he asks, "do we use up and then dispose of?"How much money will someone pocket by sending a former racehorse to a slaughterhouse, according to Dane?A mere few hundred dollars.

Drugs and slaughterDrugs are a major contributor to horse deaths, Dane says.Some drugs, like painkillers, are used to mask pain. "If a horse is running with an injury but can't feel pain due to the drugs used, that injury can be exacerbated, leading to breakdowns," he says. "A pain-masking drug known as phenylbutazone is given ubiquitously to racehorses; it's the equine equivalent of aspirin."And others drugs are used to enhance performance. "The drug furosemide, commonly known as Salix - formerly Lasix - is believed to be given to over 90 percent of racehorses, whether they need it or not," Dane explains. "It's purported intended use is to prevent racehorses from bleeding in the lungs, but it's also a diuretic which causes horses to lose water weight and run faster."There are other drugs as well, says Dane, including including steroids, cocaine and cobra venom.In April, four veterinarians were found guilty of administering drugs to horses before a race at Penn National Race Track in Grantville, Pennsylvania.As disconcerting - or shocking - as the drugging or doping of the horses may be, one of the "most reprehensible" aspects of the horse racing industry, claims Dane, is the number of thoroughbreds who ultimately end up in a slaughterhouse. A 2011 Forbes news storyreported 10,000 thoroughbreds a year were shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.Dane explains that currently, it is impossible to slaughter horses commercially for human consumption in the U.S. since Congress defunded inspections of horse slaughter plants. But they can still be exported overseas.Ferdinand's storyIn fact, this was the fate of Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby and one of the most famous racing horses in history."As a racehorse, Ferdinand won eight of 29 starts and earned $3,777,978, retiring as what was then the fifth leading money winner of all time," reported one article. Ferdinand was also hailed as one of the top 10 Kentucky Derby performances of all time by the Sporting News).But shockingly, after all his glory, his presumed fate was at a Japanese slaughterhouse in 2002. In an emotional article tracing the final years of Ferdinand, journalist Barbara Bayer interviewed a Japanese horse groom. The groom told Bayer that Ferdinand was "the gentlest horse you could imagine. He'd come over when I called to him in the pasture. And anyone could have led him with just a halter on him. ... He'd come over to me and press his head up against me. He was so sweet." (You can see a photo of Ferdinand here.)Dane says Ferdinand is now a poster child for the anti-horse slaughter advocates. And there are those within the racing industry who also want reform. "There are some tracks that have instituted practices that if you send your horse to slaughter, you will lose your privileges at the track," but that is the exception rather than the rule, Dane adds."The career of a racehorse is only a few years long," notes Dane. "But their lives can be 25 to 30 years. We feel strongly that we owe these horses more.""What other athletes," he asks, "do we use up and then dispose of?"How much money will someone pocket by sending a former racehorse to a slaughterhouse, according to Dane?A mere few hundred dollars.

Drugs and slaughter

Drugs are a major contributor to horse deaths, Dane says.

Some drugs, like painkillers, are used to mask pain. "If a horse is running with an injury but can't feel pain due to the drugs used, that injury can be exacerbated, leading to breakdowns," he says. "A pain-masking drug known as phenylbutazone is given ubiquitously to racehorses; it's the equine equivalent of aspirin."

And others drugs are used to enhance performance. "The drug furosemide, commonly known as Salix - formerly Lasix - is believed to be given to over 90 percent of racehorses, whether they need it or not," Dane explains. "It's purported intended use is to prevent racehorses from bleeding in the lungs, but it's also a diuretic which causes horses to lose water weight and run faster."

There are other drugs as well, says Dane, including including steroids, cocaine and cobra venom.

In April, four veterinarians were found guilty of administering drugs to horses before a race at Penn National Race Track in Grantville, Pennsylvania.

As disconcerting - or shocking - as the drugging or doping of the horses may be, one of the "most reprehensible" aspects of the horse racing industry, claims Dane, is the number of thoroughbreds who ultimately end up in a slaughterhouse. A 2011 Forbes news story reported 10,000 thoroughbreds a year were shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.

Dane explains that currently, it is impossible to slaughter horses commercially for human consumption in the U.S. since Congress defunded inspections of horse slaughter plants. But they can still be exported overseas.

Ferdinand's story

In fact, this was the fate of Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby and one of the most famous racing horses in history.

"As a racehorse, Ferdinand won eight of 29 starts and earned $3,777,978, retiring as what was then the fifth leading money winner of all time," reported one article. Ferdinand was also hailed as one of the top 10 Kentucky Derby performances of all time by the Sporting News).

But shockingly, after all his glory, his presumed fate was at a Japanese slaughterhouse in 2002. In an emotional article tracing the final years of Ferdinand, journalist Barbara Bayer interviewed a Japanese horse groom. The groom told Bayer that Ferdinand was "the gentlest horse you could imagine. He'd come over when I called to him in the pasture. And anyone could have led him with just a halter on him. ... He'd come over to me and press his head up against me. He was so sweet." (You can see a photo of Ferdinand here.)

Dane says Ferdinand is now a poster child for the anti-horse slaughter advocates. And there are those within the racing industry who also want reform. "There are some tracks that have instituted practices that if you send your horse to slaughter, you will lose your privileges at the track," but that is the exception rather than the rule, Dane adds.

"The career of a racehorse is only a few years long," notes Dane. "But their lives can be 25 to 30 years. We feel strongly that we owe these horses more."

"What other athletes," he asks, "do we use up and then dispose of?"

How much money will someone pocket by sending a former racehorse to a slaughterhouse, according to Dane?

A mere few hundred dollars.