Before basketball, football, or baseball were invented, horse races entertained millions of spectators around the world. The “Sport of Kings” is still popular today, with hundreds of dirt or turf courses operating worldwide and some of the most famous races such as the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Dubai World Cup drawing the biggest names in sports, politics, and film. While horse racing has largely maintained its rules, regulations, and traditions, advances in technology have helped the sport stay relevant in the 21st century by improving horse welfare on the track and at home. Thermal imaging cameras can detect when a racehorse is overheating, MRI scanners and X-rays help spot a variety of minor and major health conditions, and 3D printing produces casts and splints for injured horses.
Among the most important innovations to improve the safety and well-being of racehorses was the introduction of parity in races, where horses of equal ability competed against each other. Prior to this change, horse races were often rigged by weighting the odds and paying out more money to winning bettors. When horse racing was legalized in the United States, officials sought to put an end to the practice, but the goal seemed less to promote horse welfare than it did to protect bettors and owners.
Another technological improvement is the use of medications to prevent pulmonary bleeding in horses caused by hard running. For decades, nearly every American thoroughbred was injected with Lasix on race day, a diuretic whose presence is noted on the betting form by a boldface L. The drug has been linked to a variety of medical conditions, including colic and laminitis, but its primary function remains to keep blood flowing during races.
Despite the improvements, horse racing remains a dangerous sport for both its horses and spectators. The majority of races are held on unpaved dirt tracks, and horses are prone to falling or getting kicked. Injuries and breakdowns are common, and horses can suffer serious injuries that require surgery, such as torn tendons or blown-out ankles. Sadly, many horses are euthanized as a result of these injuries.
While some of these horses are rescued and found new homes, others are condemned to a life in slaughterhouses. Animal rights group PETA estimates that ten thousand American racehorses are slaughtered each year. While the sport has made significant improvements, it must continue to adapt to an ever-changing world to remain competitive and keep its fan base intact. For more information on the dark side of the industry, visit PETA’s website and read about abusive training practices for young horses, drug use, the transport of racehorses to slaughterhouses, and more. You can also join the movement to end horse racing by signing the petition.