Eight Belles Memorial & Horse Racing Headstones at the Kentucky Derby. Source: Flickr.

Despite a Triple Crown all that glitters is not gold in American horse racing (Part 3)


Part 3 of 3


Claiming Races

This brings us to the claiming races.

From available information, probably over 70% of races taking place in North America are claiming races. One a horse wins — or breaks his maiden — that number rises.

Claiming races have different levels of competition because just as not every horse race is created equally, neither are the horses.

To envision how races are organized think of a pyramid where each of the levels represents a class level. At the base of the pyramid are the maiden horses which are those horses who have never won a race and at the top are the very best horses who compete in the stakes races.

In between these two categories are the horses who run in what are known as claiming races which are based on parity – pitting horses of similar ability against each other to make for a competitive field.

Needless to say that the lower the level the more perilous it becomes for horses. These bottom feeder claiming races are where the spent horses bide their time, changing hands again and again.

Horses can be seen streaming past from the on track casino at Aqueduct.  Photo: Chang W. Lee / NYT.
Horses can be seen streaming past from the on track casino at Aqueduct. Photo: Chang W. Lee / NYT.

This is also where the curse of “racinos” – racetracks with casinos that offer gambling facilities for playing the slots, blackjack, roulette and other forms of non-horse betting gambling – occur. The glut of money provided from them sweeten the purses of these lower end races ultimately leading to catastrophic risks for these innocent horses.

A 2012 New York Times article authored by Joe drape, Walt Bogdanich, Rebecca R. Ruiz and Griffin Palmer; “Big Purses, Sore Horses, and Death” describes the grim realities associated with these venues.

“Since a casino opened at Aqueduct late last year, offering vastly richer prizes, 30 horses have died racing there, a 100 percent increase in the fatality rate over the same period the previous year. Like Wes Vegas and Coronado Heights, many had been injected repeatedly with pain medication in the weeks before their breakdowns, according to a review of veterinary records by The New York Times.

Pain medication during training is legal as long as it does not exceed certain levels on race day. But the prevalence of drugs is a graphic illustration of how the flood of casino cash has created powerful and dangerous incentives to run sore, tired or otherwise unfit horses in pursuit of that big score.” [1]

As the article further points out:

“At Aqueduct, horses worth $7,500 — at the lowest level of competition — recently raced for a $40,000 purse, nearly four times the recommended maximum. Two of them broke down and had to be euthanized. Both had been given pain medication in the days leading up to the race. In all, 19 of the 30 Aqueduct deaths occurred in races where the veterinarians’ standard was violated.

Nationwide, 57 percent of thoroughbred claiming races at casino tracks exceeded that 50 percent standard, and horses broke down or showed signs of injury at a 29 percent higher rate in those races, according to a Times analysis.” [2]


What it all boils down to is getting those horses onto the track without the slightest regard to their welfare – greed. And when horses don’t win, regardless of the level of competition it seems, there is always the dreadful prospect of the slaughter pipeline. Every year thousands of racehorses make their way to the slaughterhouse through clandestine channels.


Some resources claim that anywhere from 10% to 20% of the horses slaughtered annually in North America who end up on the plates of (mostly) foreign patrons of restaurants serving “cheval” are Thoroughbreds.

Horse slaughter statistics show that since the shuttering of the US horse slaughter industry close to a million American horses were slaughtered between 2008 and the end of 2014. If even 10% of Thoroughbreds were included in these statistics, that is still 10% too many. In fact, a million slaughtered horses is a million horses too many.


While all of this depravity is taking place the racing industry continues to breed thousands of horses each year.

And what’s worse, breeding for speed rather than soundness and stamina. At best, these fragile horses will race for 6-7 years, many of whom fit the description of the cast off, racing their hearts out for their countless owners in the claimers only to be discarded at the bitter end of their racing careers.

Others may only race 4-5 years and for the elite crop a total of 2 years for the “champion runners”, or possibly 3 years for those that need to further prove themselves, before they are shipped off to the breeding shed to live a life of relative misery.

A horse’s lifespan is upwards of 30 years.

Apart from the broodmares and stallions who will be used to perpetuate this incessant cycle, what have these breeders planned for the rest of these horses’ lives after the end of their short racing careers?

Short because they are weakened from racing before their skeletal structures are fully developed, even with the cornucopia of drugs administered to alleviate injuries and pain, or invariably through death because of the breakdowns caused by the combination of drugs and an immature skeletal structure.

The majority of these breeders haven’t given pause for thought to the fate of these horses inconsiderately assuming that once they are sold to the highest bidder it’s simply not their problem anymore. Passing the buck, so to speak.

The Bob Baffert trained Secret Compass won the G1 Chandelier before breaking down in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, a race for 2 year olds.
The Bob Baffert trained Secret Compass won the G1 Chandelier before breaking down in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, a race for 2 year olds. Baffert reportedly voluntarily turned over vet records on Secret Compass. And why wouldn’t Teflon Bob?

This attitude and what follows the sale of these creatures is simply inexcusable.

In the words of Andrew Cohen from his article “The Kentucky Derby and the Slow Death of Horse Racing”:

“The owners are to blame for permitting their trainers and veterinarians to give drugs to their horses on such a scale. The trainers are to blame for putting their financial interest above the interests of their horses’ welfare. The veterinarians are to blame for allowing themselves to be used as instruments of the horses’ destruction. Track officials are to blame for not taking seriously their obligations to ensure the safety of the horses. And regulators are to blame for not punishing even the obvious offenders.

“The reason all these people so often don’t do right by their horses is because the horses are perceived as fungible property rather than as the irreplaceable centerpieces of the sport. Insiders lament the breakdowns but perceive them to be exceptions to the rule. The problem is, the public doesn’t see it that way. To the lay person, each and every breakdown is proof that racing is a brutal and violent sport and, just as importantly, that the humans in charge of it aren’t doing enough to protect the horses. The cumulative effect of that perception has severely damaged the sport’s reputation and the industry’s ability to attract new fans.” [3]

Disgraceful, insatiable, self-absorbed greed.

Drug Addiction

Insofar as uniform drug testing and regulations are concerned the effort put forth by the racing industry authorities has been hapless to that end. The industry has been talking about cleaning itself up for years.

After the PETA video surfaced over a year ago there was a whirlwind of activity relating to how they would change things for the better, about how they would create a level playing field, about how their efforts would benefit the welfare of the horse.

What has come of this? Nada.

It’s all talk and no action. Just meetings, symposiums and the like held amongst the same racing authorities and “experts” as always, discussing it and developing strategies but failing to put into action what they put into words. Part of that is because no one really wants to change.

“No one wants to be regulated. No one wants to give up what little power and control they have over their corner of the industry. And too few, clearly, are willing to spend the money it would take to increase the pace of drug testing and enforcement or to aggressively market and lobby for the sport in bold new ways. Folks will pay millions for a nice colt. But they won’t pay millions to save the sport. The industry talks and talks and talks. And its leaders ponder incremental changes when great strides are desperately needed. In the meantime, too many of the fans, owners, and bettors have gone.” ~ Andrew Cohen [4]

All the while the horses at the mercy of their non-action.

In the past there have been attempts by a number of organizations (The Jockey Club, WHOA, etc.) to push for reform within the industry however the vast majority of their efforts have been thwarted by those who possess the power to change it all.

Federal Legislation

Just recently New York Congressmen Paul Tonko has stepped up to the plate.

“New York Congressmen Paul Tonko, co-chair of the Congressional Horse Caucus, has announced plans for legislation that would create a level playing field for horses, jockeys, trainers and owners that compete, as well as the fans who wager their hard-earned money on our sport.

This legislation would grant rule-making, testing and enforcement oversight to an entity created by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency at no cost to taxpayers.

USADA is a national, independent, non-governmental organization with a track record of creating uniform standards and science-based oversight to protect the rights of clean competitors and the integrity of competition, including cycling and the Olympics.
Only an organization like USADA can create and maintain a system that protects horses and the future of Thoroughbred horse racing for all of our participants and fans.

This proposed legislation has the support of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, whose members include the Water Hay Oats Alliance, The Jockey Club, Breeders’ Cup Ltd. Inc., and The Humane Society of the United States.” [5]

Well, no doubt a step in the right direction.

But while uniform regulations and drug testing would level the field across the 35 state racing jurisdictions, how do they propose to stop the unremitting use of the trainer’s secret artillery – the therapeutic medications?

These are the real culprits of racing’s woes and afflictions. While the elimination of race day drugs and lowered thresholds should be a given if the industry is serious about cleaning itself up, the biggest hurdle will be to curb the insidious use of drugs leading up to race day. These are the drugs that are incrementally destroying the horse, particularly young horses racing on immature skeletal structures.

I for one am not holding my breath; the racing industry is so corrupt I believe it is past the point of no return. The sad part is that they will use the Triple Crown in an attempt to diffuse all the bad that exists. This is a marketing strategy that is simply a thinly veiled smoke screen without merit or substance.

Sorry but no one is buying what you are selling.

American Pharoah. Photo by the Associated Press.
American Pharoah. Photo by the Associated Press.


American Pharoah is yet another pawn in their evil game. What a circus it all is.

“The alleged behavior goes on, decade after decade, because the industry is unwilling to police itself. Because state regulators are feckless and because there is no uniformity among racing jurisdictions. Because the people who develop performance-enhancing drugs are almost always one step ahead of the officials developing tests for those drugs. Because veterinarians give their horses too many drugs too often. And because too many still within the sport equate real reform with a bad-for-marketing acknowledgement of how bad things are. Well, guess what. We are here. There is no longer a man behind a curtain.

“How about telling the truth? It can finally set this industry free. Instead of pretending this problem of abuse does not exist, or claiming that the problem is under control, the sport can take the bold leap it will need to take to get to the other side—the side where animal activists aren’t picketing racetracks. That will mean more money for enhanced drug tests. It will mean legislative efforts to better regulate trainers and veterinarians. It will mean swifter and stricter punishment for offenders. It will mean an end to the insider’s code of silence.

“If the sport cannot find a way to rid itself of a culture that abides all of this it not only won’t survive—it won’t deserve to survive.” ~ Andrew Cohen [6]

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/30/us/casino-cash-fuels-use-of-injured-horses-at-racetracks.html?pagewanted=all
[2] See at 1.
[3] http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/05/the-kentucky-derby-and-the-slow-death-of-horse-racing/256621/
[4] See at 3.
[5] http://www.kentucky.com/2015/06/14/3899715_lift-doping-shadow.html?rh=1
[6] See at 3.

Photo Source: Peta on Flickr


This Report
Part 1 » Part 2 »

External Reports
• Horse Racing Special Reports by Jane Allin, The Horse Fund
10 Dark Secrets From The World of Horse Racing
Horse Racing Kills
Horse Racing Wrongs

Tuesday’s Horse
Off the Menu: Gourmet Dinner and Prime Cut Survive Thoroughbred Racing
American Horse Racing: Gonna Have to Face It You’re Addicted to Drugs
Caught: Pain Blocker Given Illegally to Racehorse Entered in 16K Claimer

4 thoughts on “Despite a Triple Crown all that glitters is not gold in American horse racing (Part 3)”

  1. Kudos and thanks for this EXCELLENT 3 part article. It is eloquently presented and factually supported, WELL DONE! I am grateful to have you as an animal/equine advocate Facebook ‘friend’! I’ve shared.

    ~”Those who protect and save other animals lead the way in protecting and saving humanity and earth.” – Anthony Douglas Williams, Inside the Divine Pattern~


  2. I will never forget the video of a young horse right at two years old and under on a training track running for a I believe a prospective buyer when one of its front legs in mid stride broke in several places as it tried to slow down the leg was swinging back and forth as it hobbled to a stop on three legs. That is why I hate horse racing with a passion right along with soring I would put every one of these crooks behind bars and through away the key. And the fools that are in the stands supporting this cruelty are just as guilty as the crooked trainers. A happy day will be when none of the public shows up on race day or for a horse show featuring sored horses because that will be the beginning of the end for this greed.


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