Barbaro after he suffered the fatal breaks that eventually claimed his life. Source: Bryant Photos.

1,400 dead horses, a fading sport, and huge subsidies — Pennsylvania horse racing faces a reckoning


Sam Wood, reporting for the Philadelphia Enquirer, has written a much needed and eye-opening report entitled “1,400 dead horses, a fading sport, and huge subsidies — Pennsylvania horse racing faces a reckoning.”

We are aware of the carnage on America’s racetracks. We are aware also that horse racing is a fading sport and has been for some time.

What we learned only recently is, to keep it running, State governments are pouring in huge sums of money to the horse racing industry every year to the tune of millions, sometimes billions, of taxpayer dollars.

Dead horses

More than 100 horses died at race tracks in Pennsylvania in 2019, the last full year of racing before the pandemic. More than half of the deaths were at Parx Racing in Bensalem, occurring on average once every six days.

Sam Wood writes:

Open quote

Racehorses are dying in staggering numbers at Pennsylvania tracks.

“For some horsemen that’s the cost of doing business,” said Kathryn Papp, an equine veterinarian based near Harrisburg. “They still see horses as livestock, as commodities. But these are intelligent animals. They bond with their caretakers. People don’t realize how aware they are.”

Despite repeated efforts at reform, doping of horses remains a key reason why so many die in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. At a 2017 trial in a sweeping doping case, Stephanie Beattie, the former president of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said up to 98% of race horses — including her own — were illegally drugged to block pain and increase performance.

Animal Kingdom

“It’s pharmaceutical warfare out there,” said Lee Midkiff, a part owner of Animal Kingdom when the stallion won the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Midkiff, who often raced horses at Parx, says he grew so disgusted about the drugs that he left the sport in 2017.

“It’s really bad,” Midkiff said. “You can get away with anything you want.”


Taxpayer handouts

If you follow any horse racing at all, you already know some of the above — the maiming, the doping and the killing. Yet it is likely you are unaware of the extent of the carnage, and that your taxpayer dollars could be keeping this savage industry alive.

Mr. Wood continues in his Pennsylvania Inquirer report:

Open quote

When Pennsylvania legalized casinos in 2004, politicians struck a trade-off under which millions of dollars in slot revenue would be diverted to subsidize horse-racing purses. That subsidy has amounted to almost $3 billion in the last decade alone, more money than the state has given to any other industry.

Now, many analysts argue that the bigger taxpayer-paid payouts have paradoxically made the sport more deadly, encouraging owners to put weak and injured horses onto the track for what turn out to be fatal runs.

While deaths climb, Pennsylvania’s oversight is flat or down. The number of regulators, their state budget, and the number of drug tests have been largely unchanged for years, while investigations and license suspensions have fallen sharply.

Gov. Tom Wolf is once again proposing to divert $199 million a year from slot-financed purses to provide higher-education scholarships for 20,000 students in a state with a crushing college debt load and high tuitions. Racing leaders complain that the shift would kill the sport.

Wolf’s agriculture secretary, Russell Redding, whose agency oversees the state’s three thoroughbred and three harness tracks, is impatient with that lament.

Tom Chuckas, an industry veteran hired to oversee thoroughbred racing after passage of 2016 state racing-reform legislation, doesn’t talk to the media, his staff said.


There is much more. Read full article »

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Featured Image: In a 2006 injury on a Baltimore track that captured national attention, Barbaro shattered his right hind leg during the Preakness Stakes, two weeks after he won the Kentucky Derby. Barbaro was put down the following year. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer.

2 thoughts on “1,400 dead horses, a fading sport, and huge subsidies — Pennsylvania horse racing faces a reckoning”

  1. mY GOD, IT’S AWFUL but I can’t sign to ban horse racing til there’s alternative rescues/retirements all set up to take them. Otherwise most will go to slaughter, Amish & Carriage and then slaughter. So for now, let them run. Put the $$ into land/refuge and buy them off track to rescue.  THAT’S  a viable alternative.  BTW I learned about horses from my grandpa who was a bookie, I’m 70, and taught me the track.  I grew up in the city, but started dressage/riding lessons at 11, finally moved out West to own my own, I would buy at auctions. So I know a little bit. TY for all you do to educate us.


    1. Thank you. We understand your concerns, and share them of course. Your thinking is forward thinking which is what we need.

      Example. Horse slaughter may become illegal in the next two years in the US, should the current bill pending before Congress to ban it is successful and becomes law. The effect of that may, at first, have a negative impact on the welfare of some of our horses, which is tragic, but that does not mean we should not ban horse slaughter.

      So it is urgent that we give this due consideration now and formulate a plan — should that event indeed occur.


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