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Is American horse racing on its last legs?

The popularity of the Kentucky Derby won't be enough to keep this sport from spiraling toward social and financial irrelevance.
Image: Medina Spirit
Medina Spirit, ridden by jockey John Velazquez, at the 147th Running of the Kentucky Derby on May 1, 2021, at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Brian Spurlock / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images file

American horse racing might be nearing the finish line. However much interest and enthusiasm the running of the 148th Kentucky Derby in Louisville kicks up on Saturday, it won’t matter if the sport doesn’t clean up its act. Horse racing needs to end doping, whipping and sending horses to slaughter if it wants to avoid the fate of greyhound racing — which will soon cease to exist.

This year’s Kentucky Derby has seen a host of reforms that, coupled with new national legislation, might just salvage the sport.

Three decades ago, there were dozens of greyhound tracks. But since then, concerns about how the dogs were treated as well as competition for gambling dollars have led to their decline, helped along by legislation pushed by my organization to outlaw greyhound gambling in its major hub. By the end of this year, there will be just two tracks left in the country.

Horse racing has faced some similar threats, as well as major scandals. In recent years it’s seen the indictment of more than two dozen trainers, veterinarians and others for “juicing” horses; the disqualification of the last two Derby winners, one connected to drugs; and the premature death of Medina Spirit (the  2021 Kentucky Derby winner disqualified for doping) who then dropped dead on the track from a cardiac event in December. In 2020, a scathing editorial in The Washington Post declared that the pastime as a whole was done for in an editorial titled “Horse Racing Has Outlived Its Time.

To its credit, leaders in the horse racing industry are finally recognizing that inattention to the equine athletes at the center of the enterprise is a losing proposition. This year’s Kentucky Derby has seen a host of reforms that, coupled with new national legislation, might just salvage the sport.

Churchill Downs Inc., the parent company that operates the Derby, has banned the use of horse racing’s most addictive drug, Lasix. The diuretic, often misused to enhance performance, makes horses run faster by shedding up to 50 pounds of their water weight just before the race. 

And along with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, Churchill Downs last year suspended notorious trainer Bob Baffert, the sport’s longtime “golden boy” and best recognized figure, preventing him from running horses this year as a result of Medina Spirit’s failed Derby drug test in 2021. Baffert maintains his innocence despite two samples of blood from Medina Spirit that tested positive for betamethasone. Baffert has unsuccessfully appealed his commission suspension in Kentucky court, and sued Churchill Downs in federal court to challenge its suspension.

This July, things should get even better when newly passed federal legislation goes into effect. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act that my organization lobbied to enact establishes a national anti-doping program with one set of standards, rules and regulations at every thoroughbred racetrack in America, much needed since the current balkanized system has failed. It offers safety measures never seen before, including establishing a national database overseen by the Federal Trade Commission that will document equine injuries and deaths in thoroughbred racing. 

These reforms come in part thanks to leaders in the industry like the Jockey Club, the thoroughbred breed registry founded in the 1800s, and the Breeders’ Cup, which is the World Championship of horse racing in the U.S., to name but two. They have worked with those of us in animal protection to improve the welfare of the horses and the industry itself, and the bettors that keep the sports’ coffers full have been increasingly attracted to other gambling options.  

But doping isn’t the only issue. The use of whips and the slaughter of off-the-track racehorses for human consumption overseas have also alienated many members of the public, yet the sport hasn’t taken the steps needed to rein in these behaviors. Just last month, the New Jersey Racing Commission announced the reversal of a whipping ban after a number of jockeys created a ruckus and moved on to tracks in other states like California where the rules are much less stringent. Beating a horse around the track with a riding crop is not a visual that younger generations of Americans are likely to tolerate. And they shouldn’t have to. 

To the industry’s credit, leaders in the breed helped garner more than 225 organizations, groups, equine-related businesses and horseracing entities to step up last year and help pass a ban on the transport of horses bound for slaughter through the U.S. House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the measure didn’t get traction in the U.S. Senate.

In 2012, a report showed that approximately 19 percent of horses sent to slaughter were thoroughbred racehorses, and last year, we saw 23,000 of our iconic American equines shipped to slaughter, according to data compiled by the U.S. Harness Racing Alumni Association

Doping, whipping and slaughter must end if the Kentucky Derby and horse racing itself are to survive. Reform must continue or this American sport may spiral toward social and financial irrelevance, just as greyhound racing has.