Editor's note: This story was originally published May 17, 2019. It has been updated.
Despite its popularity, horse racing is a dangerous sport for both horse and jockey. In the first four weeks of the race season, five horses have died at Santa Anita Park, a California racetrack, including three in as many days over Martin Luther King Day weekend.
In the U.S., 493 Thoroughbred racehorses died in 2018, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database. (Data for 2019 have not been released yet.) From December 2018 to late January 2020, more than 40 of those deaths were at Santa Anita Park.
Most of these deaths are the result of limb injuries, followed by respiratory, digestive, and multiorgan system disorders.
In fact, most of the horse deaths at Santa Anita Park in recent months were due to limb injuries.
Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, says the deaths may be because horse racing has become more competitive.
Horses aren’t getting the rest they need, especially in temperate places like southern California, where the animals race year-round, he says. (Read how horses are evolving to be faster.)
“It’s hard to keep an athlete absolutely at the top of their fitness 12 months out of the year.”
The unprecedented spate of fatalities at Santa Anita has also placed renewed focus on the safety of the sport.
For instance, in March 2019, bipartisan U.S. lawmakers introduced a federal bill, the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019, that would create a uniform national standard for drug testing racehorses. The horse racing industry is currently regulated by states.
The Jockey Club, which works to improve Thoroughbred breeding and racing, supports the bill.
“It’s time we joined the rest of the world in putting in place the best measures to protect the health and safety of our equine athletes,” the organization said in a statement.
While a broken leg is easily treatable for humans, it’s often a death sentence for horses.
That’s because horses have so little soft tissue in their legs that the bone often tears through skin or cuts off circulation to the rest of the limb, leaving them prone to infection.
In some severe cases, the bone shatters, making it nearly impossible to reassemble. (Read how horses are smarter than we think.)
Even if the horse’s bone could be set, it wouldn’t be able to support weight for several weeks. If horses can’t distribute their weight relatively evenly, they risk laminitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of tissue inside the hoof.
In general, if a horse can’t stand on all four legs on its own, it won’t survive and will be euthanized, Arthur says.
And when a horse falls, its jockey is often hurt, too. A 2013 analysis of about five years of California horse racing data showed 184 jockey injuries from 360 reported falls.
Most of the falls occurred during races and were the result of a “catastrophic injury or sudden death of the horse,” the study found.
The drug controversy
Trainers have been accused of making an already risky situation worse by drugging horses with performance-enhancing substances or painkillers, animal welfare advocates say.
Such drugs allow horses to run faster and power through the pain. For example, the drug furosemide, popularly known under the brand name Lasix, is a “performance-enhancing drug cloaked as a therapeutic medication,” according to a March report by the Jockey Club.
While it’s prescribed to treat bleeding in the lungs, the medication also causes urination and, consequently, weight loss. Lighter horses run faster, and Lasix has been shown to help horses run three to five lengths faster. The legality of each drug varies by state. (Read about the most detailed history of horse evolution ever assembled.)
While some animal activists feel such drugs should be banned, others in the horse racing industry believe better self-regulation is the answer.
To that end, the proposed horse racing legislation would establish an independent, self-regulatory body—affiliated with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency—to regulate racehorse medication, list which substances are and are not permitted, and ban medications within 24 hours of racing.