The Truth About Horse Racing

The sound of thundering hooves in the distance is one of the quintessential Kentucky experiences. Feeling the earth shake as a mass of horses barrel down a stretch during a horse race is, for many people, a profound thrill. However, the spectacle of a horse race hides a cruel truth: The sport is rife with death. Thousands of horses die each year, often due to cardiovascular collapse or heart failure; they may also suffer from broken bones and fractured spines, shattered limbs, and severed lungs. Despite being animals who understand the importance of self-preservation, these creatures are forced to endure pain and humiliation in a brutal, artificial herd culture.

Horse racing is a dangerous and crooked business. It has a small, feral fringe of cheaters who dangerously drug and otherwise abuse their horses. Then there are the dupes, who labor under the false illusion that horse racing is generally fair and honest. Finally, there are the masses in the middle—neither naive nor cheaters but honorable souls who know the industry is more crooked than it ought to be but still don’t do all they can to fix it.

In a recent article, The Atlantic highlighted a shocking video compiled by animal rights activists that reveals alleged instances of cruelty at two of the most prestigious thoroughbred training facilities in the world, Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course. The video, which was released by PETA, provides viewers with a rare glimpse of the reality of horse racing at its most elite levels. The video has since sparked outrage and condemnation from many in the horse racing industry, but it is important not to confuse hostility toward PETA with dismissal of its work.

Rather, the real problem is that horse racing is a patchwork of rules and standards across the dozens of states in which it takes place. For example, the rules governing whip use and the types of medication that trainers can give their horses differ from state to state. Then there are the different equine health regulations that vary even further. As a result, horse trainers and owners can get away with a lot of malpractice in horse racing because the consequences of their actions are limited to their state.

Mathematician Emmanuelle Aftalion of the University of Paris EHESS, in France, has developed a model that might help explain this chasm between the theory and practice of horse racing. Her research, published in PLOS ONE, analyzes strategies employed by winning horses. She finds that the best winners maximize the efficiency of muscle fibers relying on either powerful aerobic pathways that need oxygen in limited supply or anaerobic ones that build up waste products that lead to fatigue.

Her model also demonstrates that a strong start is key to success, even though jockeys sometimes hold back their horses early for a burst of energy in the final furlough. But, she adds, trainers should keep in mind that horses have unique aerobic capacities, so their racing strategies should be customized for each individual.