Horse racing is a glamorous sport for spectators wearing suits and sipping mint juleps, but behind that facade lies a world of drugs, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter. The horses, called Thoroughbreds, are forced to sprint—often under whips and illegal electric shock devices—at speeds that can cause a variety of injuries, from cracked leg bones to hemorrhage in the lungs. The animals are also often raced before they are fully mature, increasing their risk of developmental disorders.
During the race, the horses compete for a prize money, known as a purse. The amount of money a horse is eligible to win depends on the rank, or class, that it has been assigned by its owner. A few of the most prestigious races have prize money in the millions. These races are called stakes races and have a long history, dating back to the ancient Greek Olympic Games in 700 to 40 B.C. The Civil War helped propel thoroughbred breeding, as Union cavalrymen required fast horses for the front lines.
The modern-day sport was brought to America by New York governor Richard Nicolls in 1668 when he built a racetrack on Hempstead Plain, the site of today’s Belmont Park. The track was named after England’s Newmarket, the center of British horse racing, which had been introduced in the 1600s. The popularity of the sport grew after the Civil War, and by 2004 horse racing was among the top five spectator sports in America.
But the sport’s popularity waned after the scandal of “juicing” broke in 2020, when it was revealed that many racehorses were being doped with cocktails of legal and illegal drugs to mask injuries and artificially enhance their performance. The drug, Lasix, is injected into the horses just prior to the start of the race and marked on the racing form with a boldface letter. Its purpose is to decrease the pulmonary bleeding that hard running causes in many horses, and it works by forcing them to unload epic amounts of urine—twenty or thirty pounds worth at a time.
The scandal has made horse racing less attractive to the general public, which is why the industry has been struggling to attract new fans since it broke. In a recent survey, only 1 to 2 percent of Americans listed horse racing as their favorite sport. Some blame the sport’s leaders for not embracing television, but others point to declining demographics—the typical track patron is an old, retired blue-collar man—and the competition from major professional and college team sports. Still, the industry says it is putting its best foot forward to re-invigorate interest in the sport. And there are signs that it may be working: Attendance has increased at some tracks, and the industry is introducing new technology to increase transparency and fairness for all participants. For example, in the future some tracks will allow fans to see live video of a horse’s starting gate. This will help to eliminate the guesswork about which horse is going to take the lead and reduce the chances of cheating.