Horse races have been around for thousands of years, but they’ve never been as popular or lucrative as they are now. And that’s not because of the money that can be won—though that certainly helps—but because people love watching beautiful animals run and leap over hurdles at high speeds. And, of course, many people like to place a bet on the outcome.
The sport’s leaders say they want to do everything they can to make it safer for the horses and fairer to bettors, who have been hurt by the industry’s habit of juicing them. Random drug testing is in place, and it often reveals egregious violations. But some trainers will still over-medicate and over-train their horses, ultimately breaking them down and sending them on a path that ends in a premature death by euthanasia or a trip to the auction, where they end up in a slaughterhouse.
To improve the odds of winning, trainers use a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs designed to mask injuries and enhance performance. One of the most dangerous is Lasix, a diuretic with performance-enhancing qualities that can cause bleeding in the lungs. Many of the horses bleed from their lungs after exercising, and trainers will sometimes inject them with another type of blood-thinning agent to keep them in training longer.
But the most common and insidious drug is the corticosteroid, which is used to make a horse more nimble. Its effects aren’t just immediate, but long-term: Studies have shown that it can alter a horse’s metabolism and hormone levels and lead to osteoarthritis and even heart failure. Trainers also use a number of other substances to coax the best performances out of their mounts, including anabolic steroids that can alter a horse’s physique and appetite, as well as gastrointestinal and cardiac drugs.
When it comes to the safety of racehorses, there’s little doubt that the industry needs a major shake-up. The bottom line is that most horses are pushed past their limits. The result is that many, like Eight Belles, die from the stress and pain of racing.
The 2008 Kentucky Derby winner was just 17 when she died, and that’s a typical age of death for the sport. Although horse racing leaders attempted to bring it back into mainstream America after World War II, the sport is struggling to compete with major professional and collegiate team sports for spectators. Its core audience remains old, retired blue-collar men who gather in crowded grandstands to stare at banks of TV screens showing races from all over the country and sometimes from as far away as Peru and Argentina. The crowd roars when the horses are running, and its curses—many of them in Spanish and Chinese—have the rhythm and sound of universal imprecations.