Horse racing is too far gone to be saved. The next best thing is to be honest about it

Show caption Medina Spirit leads the field around the first turn during the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in May 2021. Photograph: Sarah Stier/Getty Images Horse racing is too far gone to be saved. The next best thing is to be honest about it Elizabeth Banicki As horse racing returns to the spotlight with the 148th Kentucky Derby, a respectable future for the sport that prioritizes equine welfare remains the longest shot of all Thu 5 May 2022 09.30 BST Share on Facebook

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Moments after crossing the wire second in a field of 20, the big lanky filly Eight Belles collapsed in the dirt with two shattered front ankles. Bone pierced flesh as she struggled to stand but could not. The lather on her dark coat and the blood on her mangled legs glistened under the late afternoon sun. In the charming grandstand of Churchill Downs, a sea of rainbow costumes and made-up faces froze in horror and disbelief. Fists gripped wagering tickets and sweating cocktails while jaws hung agape beneath garish hats decorated with netting and cheap plastic flowers. Her life, just entering its third year, ended there in the dirt against the backdrop of the antique twin spires, the pain and suffering in her eyes witnessed only by those standing over her as the track vet pushed in the lethal dose to end her suffering.

Had Eight Belles survived the 2008 Kentucky Derby she would be 17 now, a horse approaching her golden years. But it was not to be, due the overwhelming stress brought upon her by what she was made to do. Such has also been the fate of countless racehorses since her. A number in the thousands to be sure though, due to a long-running lack of racing industry regulation, record keeping, transparency and willingness, the true statistic can never be known.

We approach this year’s Derby on Saturday in the wake of a death that, like Eight Belles’s, nobody missed: that of the star-crossed Medina Spirit. These two champions born over a decade apart have much in common. Both stars of America’s most famous race died during the exorbitant physical stress of performance and both were just three years old. Despite the years between their respective deaths, both horses also sparked a reckoning of the sport’s ethics and integrity. What clearly has not changed is horses routinely dying from catastrophic cardiac episodes and broken limbs while in the throes of racing and training. It is no less common occurrence now than in 2008. For a sport chock full of folks so adept at finding patterns, I would hope they might see one here. More importantly that they’d admit it.

So continue to question the practice of horse racing we must. In the theatre of public opinion, a respectable future for the sport is a long shot. Racing can scarcely wade its way through one scandal before another is upon it. After the suspect death of Medina Spirit in December there was the tragic story of five-year-old Creative Plan in February, for which no one will be held accountable. Same for the bizarre injustice that befell eight-year-old stallion Laoban at upscale WinStar Farm.

There are the unknowns like 23-year-old mare Keepthename, who in her youth had been sold for $250,000 and trained by Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen in the early 2000s before being dispensed to a life of breeding. The sleek gorgeous chestnut mare with the wineglass marking on her nose produced 12 foals over 17 years. She was a warrior. Then just weeks ago in early April, Thoroughbred Athletes, Inc, a thoroughbred rescue based in Oklahoma, identified her in the slaughter pipeline. She was grimy and emaciated with a crushed skull. Her head hung low in pain and despair. She was a sight of the absolute worst neglect imaginable. The rescue fundraised to buy her out of the “killpen” and promptly had her humanely euthanized. A raging infection was so established throughout her head she would have required extensive surgery which she likely would not have survived.

Keepthename, above, who has since been euthanized, was once trained by Steve Asmussen, whose current prized three-year-old Epicenter is the second favorite in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Photograph: Courtesy of Elizabeth Banicki

Keepthename’s former trainer, Asmussen, oversees the the second favorite in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, a stunning colt named Epicenter. In a strange twist, another famous Asmussen trainee, Midnight Bourbon, who ran fifth in last year’s Derby, died just days ago. Not far from the hubbub at Churchill Downs, he fell ill suddenly from supposed gastrointestinal distress after a morning workout and was dead within an hour. It took the barn three days to publicly announce his passing. The ghosts of so many horses wander those grounds.

One might almost admire the caginess the racing industry has employed with its scattershot structuring in its efforts to maintain distance from horses it no longer profits off. There is no lifelong tracking system for the thoroughbreds the industry creates and verifies through its breeding registry known as The Jockey Club. The industry can create as many horses as it likes, profit off them in racing and breeding, and then claim no liability for what happens to them after they exit the business. Horses leave tracks and are bought and sold infinite times into unknown situations, and they are entirely on their own in the world. In the case of Keepthename, despite more than $60,000 in earnings from just her racing efforts alone, not Asmussen, not her breeder Mocking Bird Farm, Inc, nor any of her known connections or the tracks she ran at, nor those who owned her along the way, nor the racing industry in any capacity whatsoever, had an enforceable responsibility to her in the end. It is the exact path thousands of ex-racehorses find themselves on, disappearing into obscurity, and for many that path ends with their demise. As was the case for poor Keepthename.

There has never been an evolution of the industry’s business model with the best interest of the horses as the top priority. Often instead of listening, racing aficionados blow off the concerns of animal rights activists and of the larger public whilst continuing to fail at protecting horses. The unspoken truth is there will never be that awakening, that moment when suddenly the equation makes sense and the solution is clear. The problems with equine welfare in racing are systemic and baked into the very way horses are approached in the sport. To truly act in the best interest of the horses would require a profound ideological reckoning on the macro business and industry level, as well as within the minds of horsewomen and men. Horse racing should decide if the horses matter enough to take some complicated, expensive and untraditional steps to protect them. Ideally this would look like a near complete restructuring from top to bottom that prioritizes the horses at every level of decision making. From the breeding shed to aftercare, from caps on the number of times a horse can be run, its number of years of service, to integrating a more natural and equine friendly lifestyle for racehorses. In this and only this, there is hope. Additionally, there must be a hardline apparatus that divvies out severe and lasting punishments to those who violate horses. This may perhaps save lives.

The best that can be said is that racing may be able to make itself safer for horses, but never safe

If you can witness a young horse die catastrophically in a race or in training and move on from it with no more than a pang of remorse, you are a detriment to racehorses. If you can publicly mourn the death of a horse who ran notably but ignore altogether the death of a horse who did not, you are a detriment to racehorses. It is a normal response for the violent death of an innocent animal to impact a person in such a way as to make them turn away. If you can repeatedly witness horses die and continue to engage with “the game” then it is not the public, or the animal rights activists, who don’t understand, but you who has been desensitized. I speak from personal experience.

To be fair, over recent years racing has taken some commendable actions to improve safety for horses. These efforts have borne some success, though to what degree is difficult to scale because the sport has been contracting for a long time and fewer horses are setting foot on tracks than 20 or 30 years ago. The best that can be said is that racing may be able to make itself safer for horses, but never safe. Having endured countless existential crises, perhaps now is the true do or die moment. If horse racing as an industry chooses to acknowledge reality, the most honorable next step is to be publicly honest: horse racing kills horses. The sport you love and live by kills horses.

The sport can start but addressing its lack of an adequately funded industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for all horses leaving the track. In some places like Louisiana, ex-racehorses hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline. They are given a Facebook post and a short window of opportunity to be “bailed” before shipping off to slaughter in Mexico or Canada. These places charge arbitrary, sometimes outrageous ransoms in exchange for the horse’s freedom. It is hell for the horses in the purest sense of the word. If not for the handful of independent nonprofit rescues and individuals who network, fundraise and work tirelessly to save these thoroughbreds, many would face horrific endings. Right now, donations by industry folks and gamblers are essential on behalf of the horses. But they do not cancel out participation in the ongoing, often deadly, exploitation of younger running horses who will one day rely on those donations too. All while a fresh crop of new foals blinks into the sunlight.

Thoroughbred rescues shake their tin cups while Churchill Downs announces a project that allocates $200m to refurbish the track’s paddock area. The gross display of wealth also plays out at industry sales, where two-year-old racehorses are pushed to run in blistering fractions at previews for wealthy buyers. One colt recently purchased by Zedan Racing Stables, the owners of the late Medina Spirit, went for a gobsmacking $2.3m and he wasn’t the only horse to sell in the millions at that single Ocala, Florida, sale. The imbalance is satirical.

If racing hopes to help itself in the greater picture of its future, now is the time it might tackle the question of how it will fare in a modern society, culture, and potentially a justice system that increasingly recognizes animals as entitled to certain fundamental rights. The least of those being survival of the for-profit business which created them. After that, all racehorses are entitled to a safe and financially secure future. These things were stolen from Eight Belles, Medina Spirit, Keepthename, Creative Plan, Laoban and thousands of unknown others. Let them not be also taken from the young horses to come.

Elizabeth Banicki spent nearly two decades as an exercise rider.