Drug Abuse, Injuries, and Murder in the Horse Race

The sport of horse racing is romanticized in the media as a spectacle where people don fancy clothes and sip mint juleps, but behind that glamorous veneer lies a world of drug abuse, gruesome injuries, and slaughter. The athletes who compete in this sport—thoroughbred horses—are forced to sprint, often under the threat of whips and electric shockers, at speeds that push their bodies to breaking point. If they can’t handle the stress, most are euthanized.

In the earliest days of organized racing in North America, horses were trained and raced on dirt tracks. These early races were standardized, with six-year-olds carrying 168 pounds in 4-mile heats. In the early 1800s, races for five- and four-year-olds were added. By the time the Civil War began, the defining quality of excellence for Thoroughbreds was stamina rather than speed.

But the popularity of the sport grew so that more and more horses were needed to fill the fields, leading to a new breed of race, the open race. This was a more public event, with eligibility rules based on age, sex, birthplace and previous performance. The open race was a breeding opportunity for owners who hoped to produce winners, but it also became a lucrative wagering activity.

By 2020 Congress decided it was unwilling to see animals die just to satisfy the desires of racing enthusiasts and passed legislation requiring stricter safety standards. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) began enforcing these standards last July and the number of deaths has plummeted.

HISA is now testing a drug that could identify horses more at risk of injury. A test that can predict a horse’s likelihood of suffering from the kind of injuries that occur when it races would help trainers avoid high-risk horses and keep them healthy.

When the race started, the horses were thirsty and hungry. All of them had been injected with Lasix, a diuretic, marked on the racing form with a boldface “L.” Lasix is supposed to prevent pulmonary bleeding, which hard running causes in some horses. The bleeding can be dangerous and unsightly, and it leaves the jockeys covered in blood.

The first few laps went well, with War of Will taking an early lead and the favorite Mongolian Groom a close second. But in the fourth mile the horses began to tire and began to bleed.

The lead jockey, Nick Alexander, pulled up on the back of Mongolian Groom and shook his head. His horse had suffered a severe cut to his hindquarters and was in obvious pain. He threw his hands in the air, helpless.