Drugs, Injuries, and Mistakes in a Horse Race

A horse race is a contest of speed among horses that are ridden by jockeys or pulled by sulkies and drivers. A prestigious flat race in Europe, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, is usually run over distances between three and four miles.

Spectators show up with fancy outfits and mint juleps to see Thoroughbred horses sprint—often under the threat of electric-shocking devices—and bet on which one will win. But behind the rose-tinted facade of this blood sport is a world of drugs, injuries, and gruesome breakdowns that often end in death or slaughter.

It is also a world where many horsemen and women are complicit, or at least unwilling to give their all to make it right. Most of these are not cheaters, although a small, feral minority is still large enough to stain the integrity of the sport for everyone else. They are the ones who acquiesce to a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs that mask injuries, hide their own incompetence, and artificially enhance their performance.

They use powerful painkillers that are designed for humans, steroids and a variety of other prescription medications, including antipsychotics, growth hormones, and blood doping. In the past, racing officials struggled to keep up with the new medications and their abuses. Penalties were generally weak. And so, in a race where seconds mattered, a trainer who got caught with a dirty test in one jurisdiction could just move to another.

These days, however, horsemen and women are more aware of the dangers they face, and they have begun to push for reform. Many states have moved to close the loophole that allows trainers to use drugs legally in one state but illegally in another. A new national authority, scheduled to begin work next year, will help bring the United States closer to Europe and other venues in basic horse-racing safety.

But the main concern for a horse is survival, and the human desire to anthropomorphize the animals—to attribute human characteristics to them, like emotions, lust, and greed—can obscure this fact. Photos of frightened horses, their faces tense and their eyes wide, are a testament to this truth.

Despite the best efforts of many horsemen and women, serious reform has yet to take hold, in part because the corruption is rooted deep within the culture of the sport. As long as the first category of horsemen and women, those who are willing to cheat to win, remain in power, and the far-too-silent majority of good people don’t speak out, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to fix this broken game. Until that day, the term horse race will continue to have a hollow ring. And that’s a shame for everybody involved in it.