The horses sprinted into the last light of day, gleaming pinkish in the sun as the grandstand crowd moved to their feet, cheering. War of Will took the lead, but around the clubhouse turn it was clear he was tiring. McKinzie and Mongolian Groom surged up on his flank, and Vino Rosso, a big chestnut colt with a hypnotic smoothness, was closing quickly.
The race was for the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Winners of these three races, the coveted Holy Grail of thoroughbred racing, are immortalized with statues at their home track and are feted in a variety of ways, including the Kentucky Derby trophy. These horses’ success is a source of great pride for their owners, trainers and jockeys and for the bettors who fill the grandstands to see them run.
But what these horse lovers don’t realize is that there is a huge dark side to horse racing that is seldom acknowledged. Whether it is an accident on the track or an illness in training, thousands of horses die every year due to this sport. And the fact is, that number could be even higher, as many deaths go unreported.
In the wake of the 2008 death of Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby and the 2022 death of Medina Spirit at the Preakness, Congress decided that it was not willing to see animals die to entertain equine enthusiasts and passed laws requiring safety standards. But these laws are just a start. The real solution to the problem lies at the macro business and industry level, in a profound ideological reckoning that prioritizes horses at every step of the process: from breeding shed to the track, from race days to aftercare, from a culture of exploitation to one that values the health and welfare of the horses who are its lifeblood.
To truly make these changes would require a rethinking of the whole culture of the sport and a willingness to embrace what has always been true in nature: horses are prey animals, and they understand the concept of self-preservation better than we do. They instinctively flee when they are injured or in danger, not fight for the chance to win a prize or be compelled to keep running by human hands and a whip. It is the latter that has stolen the lives of Eight Belles, Medina Spirit, Keepthename and Creative Plan, and from the thousands more who have died in this sport, whose names will never be known. It is time to change that. This is an article by Elizabeth Banicki, a former longtime exercise rider for trainers and stables. She is currently working on a book on her experience in the horse racing industry. Visit her website for more information. You can also follow her on Twitter. Copyright