Today is Derby day – an important day for many, and highly celebrated by many horse lovers across the country. The Kentucky Derby is a pageant of beautiful horses, colorful jockeys, glamorous fashion, and the anticipation and excitement of fame and fortune. On the surface, it seems clean, wholesome, cultural, and family-friendly.
Mobs of people will flock to the stands at Churchill Downs. Beautiful women will don festive hats, men will gather in camaraderie and sport, celebrities will be interviewed for pre-race programming, and people across the nation will tune into their televisions to watch an activity that seems to honor the beautiful spirits of these majestic animals.
But I won’t be watching.
I can’t. I know how expensive the cost of the sport is. The horses pay with their lives.
Prior to my relocation to Hawaii, I worked in the horse racing industry for 8 years as a veterinary specialist in holistic modalities (acupuncture, massage, cold laser therapy). This is my story – an uncomfortable one, but my hope is to share my truth with you so that you can understand the sacrifices made for the “Sport of Kings.”
Horses – Man’s Most Graceful Friend
Like many of you, I have always been enamored by horses. I love their horsey smell, and watching them run free with grace and strength. I enjoy riding horses – especially on a trail in the forest or alongside the ocean.
If horses could live indoors with me (a house-horse?) along with my dogs, cats, and wife Jane, I would be in heaven! (Side note: One of my clients on Kauai specifically designed her house to allow her horse to stick his head in the kitchen and bedroom windows from his outdoor stall. Very cool! What a great example of living with “Nature”).
A relationship with a horse is different from the one you could have with a dog or cat (can you imagine sharing the bed with a horse?!)
The dog was “domesticated” long before wild horses were, so modern day horses retain some of that wild spirit. For many thousands of years, wild horses were hunted for meat (and some cultures still consume horse meat, even today). At some point in time, ancient humans saw the value in domesticating these animals for work use, riding, and companionship, rather than as a food source.
A bonded relationship with a horse (and one not based upon fear…or money) is unique. It can be very deep and emotional, as well as primal, and can take you back to when survival was dependent upon one’s horse.
But not all people feel this way about horses, especially if the horses don’t win races. At the track, if a horse does not produce income (profits) to cover expenses, it is sold or traded. Love is not part of the equation.
Life at the Tracks
I started working at the racetracks because it was an opportunity to work on the nation’s “top” horses. It was exciting to have the chance to help these beautiful animals (and that small possibility of improving the horses’ experiences is what kept me working there for 8 long years). I was familiar with the typical injuries of racehorses, and I believed that my training in massage, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and cold laser therapy could help these animals recover faster and with less stress. Traditional veterinary medicine seemed to treat horses like “machines” that need parts fixed, and pain mollified with drugs, chemicals, and antiquated surgeries.
The horses I worked on were very sweet, and the longer I worked with them, the more I fell in love with their individual quirks and character. I massaged their injuries with Chinese liniments, performed acupuncture on them, and supplemented their diets with herbs to help support their stamina and well being. When I began to see the “full picture” of the horse racing industry – it broke my heart. I couldn’t believe how disposable these animals were to the industry. It really was just about the money.
I would often dream about buying all of these horses and placing them in a large pasture to run free in their retirement. Unfortunately, this was not possible.
When I started working in the industry, I wasn’t aware of the “race track mentality “and “culture” of the trainers, jockeys, and many of the owners. Over time, I began to see that the horses’ welfare wasn’t as central to the sport as were profits. At the time, alcoholism and drugs were also prevalent in the scene. Gambling was just as dangerous and addictive, and I watched many families go deep into debt when they literally “bet the farm” on these races. I was quickly disillusioned by the whole business.
One of my most traumatic experiences at the track occurred while working on a filly – let’s call her “To the Roses” (name changed). It was my first time working on this gentle horse, and I had never seen her race. I was working on repairing strained tendons using acupuncture and cold laser therapy. The treatment was going well. I thought she had another two weeks before she was totally healed and I recommended that she should be rested until then. I was then both shocked and surprised to hear that she would be racing that day!
The trainer had her standing in ice water for about an hour before the race, then wrapped her injured tendons with tape, and geared her up for the race. Unable to do anything more to help this filly, I left the barn to watch in disbelief from the spectator area. As I sat in the stands, and saw her take off and run, my heart was in my throat. She ran a great race, and was the first horse at the finish line.
Then she went down with a broken leg.
I ran down from the stands to help, but the head track veterinarian had already given her euthanasia injections because she was beyond repair. I watched as a forklift arrived on the scene to pick up her lifeless body and drop her into a large dump truck. And that was that – and I quickly learned that these kinds of events occur every week at tracks across the country.
But the extent of disrespect for the animals didn’t end there. After witnessing a “fixed” race at the track, I quit working on racehorses for good.
Fame & Fortune?
For the trainers and owners who sit in their private booths, sporting their diamond rings, gold chains and crisp suits and outfits, the sport is mainly about Ego and Fame. Horse racing is often referred to as the “Sport of Kings” because the sport remains accessible only to those from old money, or those with vast amounts of corporate wealth (politicians, celebrities, investors, etc.). This stereotype is so well founded that a start-up company made headlines this week when it announced its intentions to bring young entrepreneurs to the race in hopes of chance encounters with these wealthy and powerful men and women horse owners (who would then, maybe after a mint julep or two, be open to investing in the entrepreneurs’ business ideas).
The stakes are truly high – the winner of the Kentucky Derby this year will net 1.425 million.
For the spectators of the industry, the sport is mainly about gambling. Psychologically, the allure of horse racing and gambling is hard to ignore. It looks like easy money – just pick the best horse based upon good breeding and training, using helpful info sheets provided by the industry. And this allure often draws in the people that can least afford to lose. Inevitably, these gamblers will experience an occasional win, which gives them hope and cements the illusion of easy money from the sport.
Here’s a powerful excerpt from the article, “10 Reasons Why You Should Not Gamble”
“…as the economic situation is getting worse, gambling is becoming the best option to win money and improve the living condition. The most affected people are the poor and the disadvantaged who are looking for a get rich quick way to augment their meager earnings and taste a ‘better life’ but instead of improving their life they end up getting poorer and poorer because what little earnings they have is squandered in gambling… The problem with gambling is most gamblers are losers. As one race fan commented, You can tell a loser when, on the rare time he does win, he screams like a little girl at a birthday party and then wants to show everyone his winning ticket!”
The Department of Psychology at the University at Albany in New York did a series of experiments on the psychology of gambling and found that the “expectancy of winning money is an important contributing factor to the excitement associated with gambling,” which feeds the addiction. The “Sport of Kings” doesn’t feel so wholesome and family-friendly anymore, does it?
What About the Horses?
Today is race day – how are the horses doing? What are they experiencing?
Some have been trucked, trailered, shipped, or flown long distances. They’ve traveled from as far away as Ireland and France, as well as California, to travel to Kentucky – the mecca of horse racing. Are they enjoying parties and the excitement of competition and wagering money? No. But hopefully their trainers are helping them to overcome the stress of traveling and being in a strange place.
These horses undergo a lot of stress to travel from their home farms to an environment of thousands of people cheering, highway noises in the background, tractors and forklifts buzzing, and the smell of hundreds of strange horses mixed with the smell of creosote, diesel, and cigarette smoke blowing in the humid warm breeze. The racetrack stalls where these horses are kept until race day is over is small, and barely allows for the horses to lie down comfortably. It isn’t much of a natural dwelling for such a large and majestic animal.
Many of these horses also have pre-race injuries. Before the Kentucky Derby has even started, some of the racehorses will suffer from injuries from training or qualifying races. This year, 11 contenders have been identified as being injured in training or injured in qualifying races with cracks, chips and sprains.
The Aftermath of Racing
Everybody loves the horses and the horses are afforded ample care, as long as they win. If a horse keeps winning, and makes enough money to pay for his vet bills, food, training, horse shoeing, vitamins, pharmaceuticals, and stables then the horse stays in the game. The lucky ones (and those who perform well) are retired eventually and relegated to breeding stock. The unlucky ones who perform poorly are often sold and traded and may eventually end up in rendering plants to make pet food and fertilizer.
But with the expense of keeping horses these days, the fate of many of these racehorses isn’t very optimistic at all – even for champions (like the 1986 winner of the Kentucky Derby who likely ended up in a Japanese slaughterhouse). Karyn Zoldan said it best:
“Like greyhounds, horses are exploited by an industry only concerned with the almighty buck. And like greyhound racing, horses go from the good tracks to the bad tracks until they are used up. Horses are slaughtered on a large scale and sent to Europe and Japan for gourmet horse meat. And if you don’t think that Kentucky Derby winners end up in some foreign slaughterhouse, think again.”
So when you watch the race today, please take some time to consider these questions:
Is horse racing good for society? Does it further the well being of horses? Does it contribute to the well being of the families who watch and participate? Or is this just another instance of exploitation of animals to make money?