Are American horse racing running out of steam?

By Marty Irby, Executive Director, Animal Wellness Action

American horse racing may be nearing the finish line. Whatever interest and excitement aroused as the 148th Kentucky Derby unfolded in Louisville on Saturday, it doesn’t matter if the sport doesn’t clean up. Horse racing must end doping, whipping and sending horses to slaughter if it is to avoid the fate of greyhound racing – which will soon cease to exist.

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 led to their decline, aided by legislation pushed by my organization to ban greyhound gambling in its main centre. By the end of this year, only two tracks will remain in the country.

Horse racing has faced similar threats, as well as major scandals. In recent years, more than two dozen trainers, veterinarians and others have been indicted for “juicing” horses; the disqualification of the last two winners of the Derby, one linked to drugs; and the untimely death of Medina Spirit (the disqualified 2021 Kentucky Derby winner for doping) who later fell dead on the track following a cardiac event in December. In 2020, a scathing Washington Post op-ed said the entire hobby was lost in an op-ed titled “Horse Racing Has Outlived Its Time”.

To its credit, horse racing industry leaders are finally acknowledging that inattention to equine athletes at the center of the business is a losing proposition. This year’s Kentucky Derby saw a host of reforms which, coupled with new national legislation, may well save the sport.59

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 improve performance, makes horses run faster by losing up to 50 pounds of their water weight just before the race.

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Marty Irby is a former eight-time world equestrian champion who is currently the executive director of Animal Wellness Action in Washington, DC, and was recently honored by Her MajestyQueen Elizabeth II for her work protecting horses.