The Kentucky Derby is an exciting annual horse race that is unique to American horseracing. More than 150,000 fans attend the race and millions more watch it on television. There’s a lot to enjoy in the tradition of the fancy hats, the stiff drinks and the challenge of betting on your favorite.
On the other hand, the Kentucky Derby is an incredibly dangerous event that claims the lives of many horses who never even see the track. How is this possible, and is it possible for people who truly love horses to support the Kentucky Derby and other horse races? In this article, we explore these challenging questions. Read on to learn more.
What You'll Learn Today
- 1 What Is The Kentucky Derby?
- 2 Racehorse Injuries And Fatalities Are Common
- 3 What Can Be Done?
- 4 Will Safer Track Conditions Help?
- 5 What Happens To The Horses Who Don’t Make The Cut?
- 6 What Are The Alternatives For Retired Race Horses?
- 7 Are Retrained Racehorses Safe For Life?
- 8 What Is Horse Slaughter?
- 9 What Can Be Done To Stop Horse Slaughter?
- 10 Why Does Horse Racing Remain Popular?
- 11 Can Genuine Horse Lovers Really And Sincerely Love The Kentucky Derby?
What Is The Kentucky Derby?
The Kentucky Derby is the 12th race in a series of races held annually on the first Saturday of each May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Twenty thoroughbreds participate in this race. They may run as fast as 35 miles an hour for 1 1/4 miles.
Sometimes conditions are perfect, and sometimes (as in the most recent, 2019 Kentucky Derby) footing may be sloppy and rain may pour down. The competition, the conditions, the crowd and a number of other factors place tremendous stress on horses and jockeys, and injuries and fatalities are common.
Even so, it’s difficult to resist being excited by the thrilling spectacle of more than a dozen beautiful thoroughbreds striving to excel. But are they striving to excel, or are they just simply being pushed beyond their natural limits? This is a concern that has caused the sport of horse racing altogether to decline over the past few years.
Racehorse Injuries And Fatalities Are Common
The stresses of horse racing can result in horrible outcomes, such as in 2008 when the winner of the Kentucky Derby, Eight Belles, suffered a compound fracture on the track immediately after crossing the finish line. She came in second and was almost instantly euthanized.
In 2018 approximately 10 horses died every week on race tracks across America, as recorded in the Equine Injury Database maintained by the Jockey club. This is a number that exceeds the fatality rate of horse racing worldwide by about 2 1/2 to 5 times.
In a short three month period of time, 23 racehorses died while competing at the Santa Anita track in Southern California. This shocking state of affairs has caused the track to be shut down as experts attempt to determine why so many horse fatalities have resulted from racing it in such a short period of time.
In fact, Santa Anita has experienced the death of 43 racehorses since 2016. The number of horses fatally injured racing at Santa Anita is 50% higher than the national average.
Simultaneously, petitions abound calling for the end of horse racing altogether, and in California, one such petition has gained 600,000 signatures. This could prompt an initiative on upcoming ballots that might put an end to the sport, at least in California.
Breeders’ Cup World Championship officials have made statements indicating that they realize that the world is changing and that the sport of horse racing may have outlived its time. Officials realize that the public is becoming more and more aware that far from striving to excel, racehorses are simply pushed beyond their ability. This results in fatal injuries for horses and often for jockeys.
What Can Be Done?
The owners of Santa Anita Park (The Stronach Group) are working to adopt international safety standards in hopes of transforming that now fatal racetrack into a progressive and safe track. Furthermore the group has expressed backing for a federal bill bipartisan bill which was introduced in March 2019.
This bill would create a uniform standard for national drug testing and rules for medication used in racehorses. This standard would be overseen by the Anti-Doping Agency of the United States.
It is worth noting that the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who is from Kentucky and no doubt heavily invested in horseracing, opposes this bill, as does Churchill Downs Inc.
Will Safer Track Conditions Help?
It certainly stands to reason that more safeguards are in order, but it’s also important to realize that the American Racing Industry already employs a stellar equine medical staff, follows medication rules modeled after those used in Europe and uses a variety of surveillance methods to ensure that horses are humanely treated. Even so, fatalities are common.
Deaths on the racetrack are not the only concern for animal rights activists and genuine horse lovers. In this video you’ll see a number of horseracing officials, racehorse owners and breeders discussing horse breeding and the efforts that they say they undergo in hopes of producing a single Kentucky Derby winner.
It is worth noting that to produce 20 contestants for the Kentucky Derby annually some 28,000 potential racehorse hopefuls are bred.
What Happens To The Horses Who Don’t Make The Cut?
Horses who win the Kentucky Derby become celebrities and are very likely to be able to continue to enjoy a healthy and happy life. A racehorse’s career is typically not longer than 4 to 6 years. They usually retire from racing by the time they are six or seven years old. Successful racing stallions may be put out to stud, and successful fillies may become racehorse brood mares.
What about those who do not win or those who never even make a high-profile race such as the Kentucky Derby?
Most horses who compete on racetracks in North America (approximately 61,000 annually) run in low-level races. Most of the public never sees them, and these horses are usually not called upon for breeding or other uses.
The sad fact is that the vast majority of thoroughbreds are considered disposable when they stop winning. When they lose a few races and stop making money for their owners, more often than not they are sent to auction or directly to slaughter.
What Are The Alternatives For Retired Race Horses?
One organization that trains racehorses for new careers called New Vocations trains thoroughbreds to do a wide variety of tasks. These versatile horses make good barrel racers, and they can work with cows. They also make excellent jumpers, so a retired racehorse is often the perfect choice for the American sport of timber racing.
Since its inception in 1992, New Vocations has retrained and found new placements for approximately 5000 retired racehorses. While this may sound like a great many horses (and it is) the fact is it’s a drop in the bucket for the number of racehorses bred each year.
Many of the horses rehabilitated at New Vocations do not come directly from the racetrack. Instead, they go may have been sold to private owners who ran them in lesser races until they stopped winning. Many came from auctions or were saved off of slaughter trucks.
Are Retrained Racehorses Safe For Life?
Retraining can buy retired racehorses some safety into their later years, but even outside of the racing sector horses are often simply disposed of through auction or slaughter when they are deemed too old to be ridden or too expensive to care for.
A horse can live to be well over 20 years old, so even those who transition from a racing career to jumping or showing or a rodeo career will eventually be unable to perform the duties they’ve been trained to do. Very often, these horses may be sold cheaply or advertised as “free to good homes” and then swept up by kill buyers who pretend to want to give them a good home but then send them off to slaughter.
Groups that use well-trained mature horses, such as children’s summer camps, often send all of their horses off to slaughter at the end of the season and simply get more when the camp reopens the next year. The reason for this is that there are simply too many horses, and one of the main reasons for this is that the racing industry over breeds by the tens of thousands.
What Is Horse Slaughter?
Horse slaughter has been illegal in the United States since 2007, but there is a huge market for horse flesh overseas. People in Asia and in Europe eat a great deal of horse meat. For this reason, there’s a big market for live horses bought at auction to be sent to Mexico or Canada to be slaughtered every year.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), over 166,000 American horses are shipped out of the country to slaughter annually.
Many of these horses are racehorses who have raced within a week of being sent to auction. Although quite a few tracks forbid shipping horses off to slaughter, the rules against this are often ignored.
Horses sent to slaughter are herded onto large, open cattle trailers that are entirely inappropriate for horse transportation. Horses are packed in and sent on long, hellish journeys of thousands of miles with no food or water. A great many horses sent to slaughter arrive badly injured or dead.
What Can Be Done To Stop Horse Slaughter?
1. Racing Industry Reform
The horseracing industry is, in a large part, to blame for the existence of horse slaughter. For every potential winner there are great numbers of foals who simply can’t make the cut. These may be sent off to slaughter before they ever get a chance to race.
The equine overpopulation crisis that is caused by the racing industry’s over breeding is also the cause of tens of thousands of horses being killed in slaughter. There are two things that the racing industry can do about this:
- Stop breeding so many horses.
- Take responsibility for the horses that don’t make the cut.
It is a sad fact that raising any kind of animal to make a profit results in exploitation. There are far too many trainers, veterinarians and racetrack owners, not to mention breeders who are simply in it for the money. This results in problems such as over breeding and also the excessive use of painkillers and performance-enhancing drugs which force horses to perform through pain and/or to a greater extent than their natural abilities would allow them. This is a recipe for fatal accidents.
It’s important to understand that because of the exploitation of tens of thousands of horses, the racing industry is a incredibly wealthy industry. In fact, they have plenty of money to establish retirement homes for racehorses that can no longer race and placement programs for those that simply do not make the cut in the first place.
2. Protect America’s Horses With Stronger Regulations
There is currently a bill before Congress, the Horse Slaughter Prohibition Bill (HR 503) that prohibits a wide variety of activities associated with horse slaughter such as:
…equines of all sorts (horses, donkeys, mules, zebras) for slaughter for any purpose including human consumption. In 2006, this bill passed the House of Representatives; however, it has languished in the Senate, which is controlled by Mitch McConnell.
Another bill, Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act (H.R. 961), has made more headway because its focus is on the health risks posed by consuming horse meat. It is important to understand that even if you have no moral objections to human consumption of horse meat, the fact is horse flesh is unhealthy for people to eat.
The vast majority of horses, especially racehorses, have been given tremendous amounts of vaccines and medications throughout their lifetimes that are absolutely toxic to human beings. Consuming horse flesh is a good way to develop cancer, central nervous system disorders and many more health problems.
To put an end to horse slaughter, the more than 90% of Americans who oppose it must do so vocally and in writing. Know your representatives in Congress and the Senate and let them know what you think!
Why Does Horse Racing Remain Popular?
On the bright side, horse racing is exciting. The Kentucky Derby and other big races can be thrilling. Horse racing is a big industry with a lot of money behind it. The racing industry employs a great many people including breeders, veterinarians, grooms, jockeys and more. Racehorse owners stand to win a great deal of money and racing and also can benefit monetarily from stud fees.
On the dark side, Americans must wake up and understand that the suffering, cruelty and wanton disregard for life that is inherent in horse racing needs to end. The racing industry needs to stop over breeding and start taking responsibility even for horses who don’t win.
Can Genuine Horse Lovers Really And Sincerely Love The Kentucky Derby?
As matters stand now, the answer to that question has to be “no”. No matter how beautiful the horses look or how thrilling the race, those few minutes on the track are just a bit of dazzle. For a genuine horse lover to be able to support and truly enjoy horse racing, a lot of changes must be made in terms of the events leading up to the race and the fate of the horses after the race is over.