By Marty Irby, executive director, Animal Wellness Action
American horse racing might be nearing the finish line. However much interest and enthusiasm the running of the 148th Kentucky Derby in Louisville kicks up on Saturday, it won’t matter if the sport doesn’t clean up its act. Horse racing needs to end doping, whipping and sending horses to slaughter if it wants 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 have led to their decline, helped along by legislation pushed by my organization to outlaw greyhound gambling in its major hub. By the end of this year, there will be just two tracks left in the country.
Horse racing has faced some similar threats, as well as major scandals. In recent years it’s seen the indictment of more than two dozen trainers, veterinarians and others for “juicing” horses; the disqualification of the last two Derby winners, one connected to drugs; and the premature death of Medina Spirit (the 2021 Kentucky Derby winner disqualified for doping) who then dropped dead on the track from a cardiac event in December. In 2020, a scathing editorial in The Washington Post declared that the pastime as a whole was done for in an editorial titled “Horse Racing Has Outlived Its Time.”
To its credit, leaders in the horse racing industry are finally recognizing that inattention to the equine athletes at the center of the enterprise is a losing proposition. This year’s Kentucky Derby has seen a host of reforms that, coupled with new national legislation, might just salvage 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 enhance performance, makes horses run faster by shedding up to 50 pounds of their water weight just before the race.
Marty Irby is a former eight-time world champion equestrian who currently serves as the executive director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C., and was recently honored by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II for his work to protect horses.
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