The Dangers of the Horse Race

The sport of horse racing has evolved from a primitive contest of speed or stamina between two horses into a glitzy spectacle with enormous fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money. But the basic concept remains the same: The horse that finishes first is the winner.

The horse race is one of the oldest sports and was practiced in ancient Greece, Rome, Babylon, Syria, Egypt, and Arabia, among many other civilizations. The contest between a horse and rider, which requires immense physical and mental discipline, has captivated the imaginations of philosophers, poets, novelists, artists, and filmmakers throughout history. It has even found its way into mythology, such as the race between Odin and the giant Hrungnir in Norse mythology.

Today, the sport is dominated by Thoroughbreds, which are developed specifically for speed and endurance. In addition to the equine athletes, the race also relies on a cadre of human professionals—including trainers, exercise riders, and jockeys—to prepare and oversee them. The race is also governed by strict rules and regulations, both on and off the track. Thermal imaging cameras can detect overheating post-race, MRI scanners and X-rays help identify maladies, 3D printing technology helps produce casts, splints, and prosthetics for injured or ill horses, and a host of other technologies have transformed race day into an intense, high-tech operation.

Despite these technological advances, however, the race still remains a dangerous and violent sport. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that injuries and fatalities involving thoroughbreds are disproportionately high compared to those in other sports, and that there is an alarming lack of safety measures being taken by the racing industry.

Aside from the risk of injury, there is a more subtle danger lurking beneath the surface: corruption and doping. As modern medications designed for humans bleed over into the equine world, powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatories have become commonplace in race preparation. And the testing capacity of race officials has never kept pace with this, so a drug test positive in one jurisdiction could easily go undetected in another.

In the end, it all comes down to whether horse racing can survive its ongoing scandals. A respectable future for the sport appears to be a long shot, given its precarious position in the theatre of public opinion. After all, it can scarcely wade through the death of five-year-old stallion Medina Spirit or the suspected doping of eight-year-old gelding Creative Plan before another one lands.

The tumult of election coverage has spawned a dirty phrase: “horse race journalism.” When journalists cover elections by focusing on polling and campaign strategy like play-by-play announcer calls — what is sometimes referred to as a focus on who’s ahead and who’s behind rather than policy issues — voters, candidates, and the news industry suffer, according to multiple studies.