The Inevitability of Dead Racehorses

On the central matter of "casualties" and "catastrophic breakdowns," while drugs, pre-existing injuries, track conditions, etc. are all certainly relevant, the simple truth is that the maiming and destruction of racehorses is inherent to the industry. Death at the track is, always has been, and always will be an inevitable part of racing.

And here's why:

First, the anatomy. The typical horse does not reach full maturity - his bones are not done growing, plates not done fusing - till around six. And the higher up the horse's body, the slower the process, so that the bones in the spine and neck, of all places, are the last to finish. The typical racehorse is (forever) torn from his mother at a year of age or less and thrust into an intensive training regimen with an eye toward racing him at two. On the maturation chart, a 2-year-old horse is the rough equivalent of a 6-year-old child. Imagine that. And this is something that will not change, for waiting till six to train and race horses would be cost prohibitive. It's never going to happen.

Second, the horserace itself is an unequivocally unnatural act. This, of course, flies in the face of what we've forever been told by the racing people - that horses are born to run, love to run, that they're merely being "guided" through their natural paces. Nothing could be further from the truth. Horses running - playing, frolicking, socializing - in an open field bears no resemblance to what happens at a racetrack. There, perched humans compel their charges to a breakneck speed - with a whip. There is no choice, no free will, no autonomy for naturally autonomous beings. Simply put, it is coercion through pain.

Furthermore, in nature, horses, like all animals, understand self-preservation. So that if injured, they know to stop, rest, and, if possible, heal. At the track, not only are many of the injured "urged on" by their whip-wielding "teammates," but in a cruel twist, often try desperately to stay with their artificial herds. Here again, no change is forthcoming, for the horserace can only exist by force.

Third, the economic realities of the business. The racing people are fond of saying, "since our success depends on healthy, happy horses, why would we do anything to compromise that?" Well, first, happy is more than mere sustenance and shelter, and healthy is more than an ability to run. But beyond that, it's crucial that the public understands how this industry works: The vast majority of racehorses are bought and sold multiple times over the course of their so-called careers, careers that generally don't last long to begin with. So, the earning window for the current connections is almost always short-term - could be a few races, maybe a few months, possibly even a year or two, but the bottom line is that as a rule, the long-term well-being of the horse is of no concern. It's maximize profits now, by all means available - this, of course, is where the drugging, doping, and joint injections factor in.

And because most horses are worth less than a decent used car, and because most purses are artificially jacked up with casino cash - cash that also allows many tracks to pay first through last - the horseman's breakdown-risk to earnings-reward ratio is quite attractive. And because there's always ample, affordable inventory, when problems do arise, they can always dump off to the next guy and acquire anew.

And this leads to my final and most important point, and that is: The fundamental relationship itself - that of owner/owned - guarantees bad things will happen. Guarantees. By definition, a piece of property, a commodity, a resource, a means - all of which undeniably describe the racehorse - can have no meaningful protection under the law. In fact, it's absurd to argue otherwise. Truth is, a horseman, if he so chooses, can run his horse into the ground - yes, even to death - with virtual impunity. There is no real accountability because this core relationship precludes real accountability - neither the industry nor our society will ever seriously punish a property owner for crimes against his property. Again, to say differently is pure folly.

Moreover, as it is with all animal-exploitation businesses, the law - as represented by anti-cruelty statutes - invariably defers to "common industry practice"; for 150 years of American horseracing, broken and dead bodies have been seen and treated as an unfortunate cost of doing business. In short, no one is watching; no one cares. In truth, to the racing industry, to government, to our society at large, a racehorse's life does not matter. Alive or dead, it just doesn't matter. So because of all this, I'm here to argue that short of shuttering the betting windows altogether, there is nothing they can do to stop the carnage. Nothing. And what's more, they know it.

- Patrick Battuello