The horse race industry needs serious reforms. The sport’s reputation has been tarnished by drugs, gambling scandals, and abuse of horses. And new would-be fans are turning away, especially in America. Many see the sport as morally tainted and full of cheats.
The sport’s biggest problem is its reliance on illegal substances. Racing’s history of doping goes back to ancient times, when it was common to use cocaine, heroin, strychnine, and other stimulants to enhance performance. In the modern era, doping has become more sophisticated. Horses are given powerful painkillers, blood doping products, growth hormones, and other stims, all legal in most races. Racing officials have struggled to keep up with the development of new drugs and lacked the ability to test for them. And penalties are generally weak.
Even so, the doping problem in horse racing is probably less severe than it seems. For one thing, the drug use has been concentrated among a small group of trainers who are not afraid to go to extreme lengths to win. The problem is also exacerbated by the fact that the sport has so many overlapping rules and regulations, and because it’s impossible to enforce them all perfectly.
But there is a bigger issue that goes beyond doping. The cruel treatment of horses is the major reason why so few people want to watch a horse race. The spectacle of horses being forced to sprint—often under the threat of whips and illegal electric-shocking devices—at speeds that frequently result in injuries and breakdowns is hard to stomach. Those who attend horse races may show up in fine clothing and sip mint juleps, but behind the romanticized facade is a world of drugs, injury, and slaughter.
In flat races, a horse’s pedigree determines whether it can compete. To qualify for the most prestigious races, known as conditions races, a horse must be bred from parents who are both purebreds of a particular breed, such as a Thoroughbred or a Quarter Horse. In order to win a condition race, a horse must be nominated by its owner and earn nomination fees and entry fees from other owners.
To be competitive in a short sprint, a horse must have quick acceleration. In long-distance races, such as the Triple Crown races in the United States or the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Europe, a horse must have stamina and endurance. A number of other factors can affect a horse’s speed and performance, including its distance from the starting gate, age, gender, and training. For example, younger horses are often quicker than older ones because they have not yet developed as much muscle mass. But this advantage is not as large as some claim, and standardized residual analysis shows that times do not change significantly over time.