Horse racing is a highly popular sport, which has been around for centuries and shows no sign of losing its popularity any time soon. It is, however, becoming a more controversial sport, as more and more people are becoming increasingly concerned with animal welfare.
It is true that racehorses are very well looked after and are not in any danger of being maltreated – but the actual races themselves can prove very costly in terms of horse’s lives.
Every year, there is at least one death, and usually many more, either on the field or off it due to injuries sustained while racing.
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Causes Of Horse Racing Deaths
The usual cause of horse racing deaths is when a race horse sustains a serious injury to a leg and has to be euthanized.
Horses can survive with broken legs, but they are animals who absolutely rely on all four of their legs, unlike dogs and cats who can get about happily with three.
The treatment for a broken leg on a horse is so long and arduous, and they have so little soft tissue in their legs meaning that bones can often protrude through the skin, that it is often kinder to put them out of their misery.
Another main cause of horse racing deaths is a broken neck – this is particularly common on race courses where the horses have to jump – a bad landing or being jostled by another horse can put a horse completely off his stride so that he falls on his head instead of his feet.
Horse racing puts an incredible amount of strain on the heart and lungs, and there have been cases of horses dropping dead on the track due to heart failure, or multiple organ failure due to exhaustion and over exertion.
Sometimes race horses can die of completely natural causes unrelated to racing too, of course – for example there are many cases of these horses dying of colic, as Thoroughbreds tend to have more sensitive digestion than some other horses, so they may be more prone to ailments like this.
In the UK, for example, 202 race horses died in 2018, the worst year since 2014. Becher’s Brook alone, a fence in the Grand National, has claimed nine lives and recorded almost 200 falls since 1960.
The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses in Australia has gathered information from every race in every state and territory and has reported 122 deaths between 2018 and 2019, and states that one horse will die on average on Australian racetracks every three days.
According to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database in the U.S, a whopping 493 racehorses died in 2018 alone.
These are just three countries in the racing world; the total of all horses killed on every race track in the world will be significantly higher.
Examples Of Horse Racing Deaths
There are too many race horses who have died on the tracks to be listed here, but let’s have a look at a few of the more well known ones:
- Flying Water – Collided with the running rail at Belmont Park in 1978 and broke her shoulder.
- George Washington – Suffered a dislocated ankle fracture during the Breeder’s Cup Classic at Monmouth Park in 2007.
- Star Over The Bay – Fractured his right leg in the Singapore International Cup at Kranji Racecourse in 2005.
- Seeandem – Broke his back at the Grand National in 1987.
- Brown Trix – Fractured a shoulder then rolled into the water-filled Becher’s Brook, also in 1987 (these two deaths caused an outcry because the officials could not move the bodies fast enough, and at one point the audience had a clear view of both the fallen horses).
- Dulcify – Suffered a broken pelvis during the 1979 Melbourne Cup.
- Darlan – Fell at an obstacle and broke his neck at Doncaster Racecourse in 2013.
- Cool Reception – This horse finished second in the Belmont Stakes in 1967, but when the race finished he was found to have run the last 200 yards on a broken foreleg and had to be euthanised.
- Brown Panther – Fractured a hind leg and was euthanised at the Irish St Leger at the Curragh in 2015.
It is often speculated that racing horses hard from such a young ages (Thoroughbreds are bred to grow very quickly and reach their mature size early – many race horses are already world famous by age two) can contribute to their premature deaths.
There is something in this, as they are worked incredibly hard before an age when their bodies have even fully finished developing (usually around age five), which can lead to them developing health issues that can be fatal.
Also, the world of horse racing is becoming increasingly competitive, and so horses are often not rested fully in between races.
Another problem can be the drugging of horses with performance enhancing substances.
Drugging is illegal, but there are ways around it – for example using the drug Furosemide, or Lasix, which is used to treat bleeding in the lungs but which can also cause urination and weight loss.
Lighter horses run faster, making this legal drug a way of winning races. Painkillers can also be used, which can mean that a horse will push himself harder than he would have done had he been able to feel the pain, leading to injury or death.
Frequently Asked Questions
Racehorse care varies from on owner to the next, but generally, owners make efforts to ensure the horses’ well-being. Reputable trainers and owners make the health and welfare of their horses a top priority. They do this by providing proper nutrition, veterinary care, exercise, and living conditions. Sadly, there are some instances of mistreatment or neglect. These highlight the need for continued improvement and oversight in the racing industry.
It’s hard to get accurate data on horse and jockey injuries and fatalities in horse racing. An estimate of about 750 a year would be modest. The Jockey Club, is a registry for Thoroughbred horses in the United States which has set up some initiatives to track and analyze racing injuries. Even so, comprehensive nationwide statistics are not available.
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact number, but in recent years about 20,000 to 25,000 foals have been born into the American racing industry annually. The exact number can vary based on several factors, including breeding trends and market demand.
Again, it is hard to get precise figures, and the figures that are available vary from year-to-year. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant portion of the foals bred each year are trained and eventually enter the racing industry. Even so, groups of yearling Thoroughbreds are not an unusual sight at auctions and in kill pens. Indeed, “..slightly more than the 7,567 yearlings sold at auction in 2010 to American, Japanese and Middle Eastern billionaires, among others.”
Thoroughbred horses bred by the racing industry that do not end up racing may be repurposed for other equestrian disciplines, such as show jumping or dressage. Some are used for breeding. Some find new homes as pleasure horses or companions. Sadly, many end up going to auction or slaughter. To combat this and to help redirect these horses into happier lives, some organizations and charities have been set up to facilitate the transition and adoption of retired racehorses.
Some Thoroughbred racehorses may retire sound and healthy and go on to live out their days in specialized retirement facilities or be rehomed as pleasure horses or companions. Still others are transitioned into breeding careers to pass on their genetic lineage. Unfortunately, many of these horses face the risk of ending up in slaughterhouses or inadequate care. This is why post-racing initiatives that forbid sale into slaughter and require responsible ownership are so important. Efforts are always underway by animal welfare organizations to improve the lot of retired racehorses.
Whatever the reason for the death of a racehorse, it is always tragic – often these horses are well loved favourites of their jockeys and trainers, and of course, the racing fans.
It is heartbreaking to lose a horse at any time of its life, and so we must do the best we can to avoid more racing deaths in the future – be that by improving the condition of the tracks, not racing a sick or injured horse, and making sure that jumps are as safe as they can be.
That being said, it is a fact of life that some tragic accidents will happen – sadly, it is in the nature of the sport.