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Is It Fair to Let Horse Racing Be a Spectator Sport?

Horse racing is the oldest of all sports, but some question whether it’s fair to subject these majestic creatures to such a violent contest. Others think the sport, known as the “Sport of Kings,” is a pure and noble pursuit that may be in need of reforms, but is still fundamentally sound.

Founded in the 1600s, organized horse racing developed from primitive contests of speed and stamina into a huge public-entertainment business that has evolved into a spectacle involving large fields, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment and immense sums of money. Today, the sport remains popular in North America, but it has a hard time competing with major professional and collegiate team sports for attention. The racer’s skill at coaxing a few yards’ advantage over another horse in a dash-style race makes the sport exciting to watch, and a win can bring enormous riches.

The sport also attracts critics who claim that it’s inhumane, or that the industry has been corrupted by doping and overbreeding. Still, many people say that racing is a way for horses to live out their natural instincts and that it has been an important part of American culture for generations.

In recent years, several major racing venues have closed. Those that remain face financial problems and shrinking audiences. Some blame the decline on the sport’s reluctance to embrace television, which has given rise to other spectator sports such as the NFL and NBA. Others fault horse racing leaders for failing to develop a marketing strategy that would have brought it into the mainstream of the country’s leisure activity.

Some also believe that the sport suffers from a lack of adequate safety measures. A spate of horse deaths in recent years, including 30 at Santa Anita in California last year, has prompted calls for more thoroughbred health and safety reforms.

A major problem with horse racing in the United States is that it operates under a patchwork of rules that vary by state and even by track. Different regulations cover such issues as the use of whips and the types of medication horses can receive. That’s in contrast to other major sports, which have one set of uniform rules.

There are many ways to make horse racing safer, but some of the most important are to establish a national database of equine injuries and fatalities and to require that all horse races meet stricter safety requirements. Those steps might finally put horse racing on the path to genuine reform and away from its current code of silence about abuse and neglect.