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American Pharoah and the Moral Dilemma of Horse Racing

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For the un-familiar, the Triple Crown consists of three races: The Kentucky Derby (1875), the Preakness Stakes (1873), and the Belmont Stakes (1867). The Triple Crown is considered the highest achievement in American horse racing.

There have been two decades that were heavy on Triple Crown winners. In the 1940s, four horses won the Triple Crown.

1941 Whirlaway
1943 Count Fleet
1946 Assault
1948 Citation

A second run of winners was kicked off in the 1970s by (arguably) the great thoroughbred of all-time, Secretariat.

1973 Secretariat
1977 Seattle Slew
1978 Affirmed

As the 70s came to a close many horse racing observers believed that Triple Crown winners would continue to be a regular occurrence.  That was 37 years ago. Today, American Pharoah became the first thoroughbred to win the Triple Crown since 1978. For those that follow horse racing, even casually, this is a pretty big deal. This was the number one topic on my Facebook feed tonight, filled with friends who make their homes here in the Bluegrass State,

My interest in horse racing is that of a proud Kentuckian who values our traditions and has lived through 40 Kentucky Derbies now. We love visiting the track, especially with friends from out of town. We love the pageantry, the chance to see our city on the national stage, the excitement that comes with the Derby Festival every year. But there is a darker side to horse racing. On average, 24 horses die at U.S. racetracks each week. I had the unfortunate experience of being at the Kentucky Derby when filly Eight Belles broke both ankles and was euthanized in front of thousands of spectators just minutes after the race ended.

There are horse farms just around the corner from our house. When the kids were younger we would walk over and pet the horses who were friendly enough to come over and greet us. Anyone who drives through serious horse country around Lexington has to admire the beauty of miles of rail fences and these amazing animals running through pastures. What does horse racing mean for my home state? The financial impact.of Kentucky’s horse industry cannot be over-stated..

– The horse industry is Kentucky’s #1 agricultural product

– $4 billion — Estimated economic impact of Kentucky’s horse economy

– 80,000 – 100,000 direct and indirect jobs generated by the horse industry

– $10 billion — Economic impact of the state’s tourism industry, which features the horse industry as its signature promotional attraction.

In light of these realities, it’s not surprising that efforts to clean up the horse industry are not easy. In 2000 Calumet Farms, once considered the greatest dynasty in horse racing, was nearly closed after facing over a decade of corruption charges. It was a black eye for an industry that is often under fire from animal rights activists and other groups that see it as more bad than good.

The moral challenge I face is a complicated one. I don’t like the realities of how horses are often treated. Still, I often let sentimentality trump good sense. In this way I suppose I am not that different than fans of most other sports. Soccer fans should certainly be able to sympathize. Baseball went through its steroid scandals and MMA faces the same problems now. The Tour De France has been marred by doping. The NFL regularly has to deal with misbehaving players. The Olympics are often considered the pinnacle of sport economies gone wrong. Ultimately, it seems that sports will always present fans with these tough philosophical debates. We love sport for bringing out the best in competitors, but we feel betrayed when the game feels corrupt.

For today, I am going to choose to ignore my conscience and celebrate this historic win and resume my ethical objections tomorrow. Such is the life of a sports fan.

Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at mikedwyerwrites.com. You can also find him on Facebook. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.

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21 thoughts on “American Pharoah and the Moral Dilemma of Horse Racing

  1. Interesting perspective, Mike. Thanks for sharing. Are the moral/ethical issues inherent? Or could the horse racing industry exist more or less as it does but with better care/treatment of the horses?

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    • There are a lot of theories on why injuries are so common. Breeding is often pointed at as the culprit. Today’s horses don’t look like the horses of the 1940s. Some blame the track service (natural vs. artificial). It’s a tough sport to keep the horses healthy in.

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      • The NYTimes piece you point to, and another story linked from there regarding which tracks have the worst injury rates, points pretty clearly to drugs masking mild injuries — which then become major — as the main culprit. There also looks to be a pronounced increase in the injury rates as you move down the economic ladder — small facilities running low-priced claiming races have much higher injury rates.

        Outside of the elite races and tracks, it’s a tough business where profits are getting much harder to make. The Ak-Sar-Ben track in Omaha went from tenth in attendance nationally in the mid-1980s to closed in 1995. That decline is generally linked to the introduction of a variety of other legal gambling in the region.

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        • On a related note, proposals for legal gambling in Maryland were sold as intended to save the horse racing industry in the state. The camel’s (or rather, horse’s) nose in the tend was slot machines at race tracks. The problem, obvious at the time to anyone who cared, is that there is no real reason to link slot machines and horse racing. Once the precedent of legal slot machines was set, the inevitable next step, which since occurred, was casinos with no connection to horse racing.

          Racing has been in decline in America for pretty much my entire life, if not longer. Much of what we see is the ugly scramble for slices of a shrinking pie.

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          • Racing has been in decline in America for pretty much my entire life, if not longer.

            And I’m sure you had nothing to do with that, Mr. “Hersh”-burger.

            ugly scramble for slices of a shrinking pie.

            Yeah. Thought so.

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          • Interesting comments about Maryland, horse racing and casinos. Maryland and Kentucky are very similar in that respect. Casino gambling has never been legalized in KY because it has been seen as harmful to the horse industry. Churchill Downs has actually planned for the possibility though. They built a large addition some years ago and I was told by someone that it was designed to be converted for slot machines very rapidly. A friend noticed that there were an excessive number of electrical outlets in some of the public spaces. Their plan is that if casinos are ever approved, they will jump on board rather than allow their business to be affected. Seems like good planning.

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        • Not unlike football. One of the main complaints in the recent lawsuit of former players against the NFL was that the team’s trainers would do exactly that: give injured players pain-killers and clear them to go back into the game, turning small injuries into major or lasting ones.

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          • Asking people to willingly damage their brains and basically kill themselves for sport turns it into Roman Bloodsports.

            If you want to watch snuff porn, at least be fucking honest about it.

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    • ,

      My (admittedly limited) understanding is that horses aren’t physically mature until the age of 4, and that the triple-crown races are all for 3-year-olds. That seems like a pretty insurmountable sticking-point.

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  2. A fundamental ethical difference between equestrian sports (not just horse racing) and other sports, though, is that the participants are not in a position to choose for themselves whether they’re willing to compromise their long term health for the benefits of sports success and fame.

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  3. I was struck by how few changes in the essay would need to be made from horse racing to law. Financial and cultural importance, a foundation for other industries, marred by scandal and corruption, but fundamentally doing something good. Most lawyers don’t cheat or abuse the legal system, but wear black eyes for the ones who do. Rather like the horse trainers you write of in the OP.

    Mutatis mundatis with medicine.

    Mutatis mundatis with enforcement.

    Mutatis mundatis with journalism.

    Mutatis mundatis with nearly any human endeavor.

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  4. Although dog racing is considered more low class by horse racing enthusiasts, the issues are somewhat similar. Top athlete animals that too often suffer terrible injuries or are put down upon retirement. The industry is also declining with more tracks closing all the time. I feel a similar ambivalence about this. I volunteer with a greyhound rescue and have owned 4 retired racers so far and fostered dozens of others to help them learn how to be house pets before placement. Without the tracks, there would only be a very few of these wonderful dogs available through the AKC, and the AKC has a bad history of breeding only for looks instead of personality and sound health/structure. (The AKC hounds I’ve met are practically a different breed from the racers). I also know that the dogs love racing. When there were still tracks in New England we’d gone to a fun run put on to raise money for adoption at one. The dogs got there and rather than being apprehensive, they were HAPPY – excited, couldn’t wait to get on the oval.

    So with greyhounds, it’s maybe a little better. A lot of people inside racing started working with rescue folks a decade or so ago and now far more dogs retire to homes. It’s a lot harder to adopt a washed up race horse. Also, the results of breeding and racing schedules are more mixed. Racing greyhound breeding has produced one of the few large dog breeds NOT prone to hip diplasia, but nearly every dog I’ve had who raced 3 years or more had injury-induced arthritis by age 8 or 9. The difference is that dogs can remain valued members of the family anyway. Few horses past the point where they can be ridden will be kept. On the other hand, from what I’ve heard, because there are fewer race horses and they are higher maintenance, they are given more vet care and human attention while they are racing and aren’t as easily discarded as soon as their stats dip.

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    • Racehorses can still be ridden after they are done racing, from what I’m aware. Sure, they turn a lot of mares into broodmares, but that’s because they’ve got fine lines.

      The real issue with horses is that we aren’t allowed to eat horsemeat, so there’s little incentive to deal with racehorses or any others.

      A horse (nearly any horse) costs less than a thousand dollars. The real cost is upkeep.

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  5. Mike,
    Do you happen to know how many of the triple crown winners won in the mud? I know American Pharoah won in mud at the Preakness…

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      • Wiki has most of the horses listed (not the first two or three), and by the descriptions there, only Omaha won in the mud (Belmont) — writers would have mentioned if there was mud, because it significantly changes the conditions. (Also, horsemen tend to have “mudders” — horses that are good at running in the mud and nowhere else. Significant numbers of them get entered in the Derby, and scratched if the course is fast and hard).

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