Vet ethics: Death on the racecourse

One of the notable animal welfare stories to hit the headlines in March was the temporary closing of the Santa Anita Park horse-racing track. The track in California’s Arcadia witnessed the death of over 20 horses in a ten-week period. Santa Anita Park featured in the popular movie Seabiscuit and has seen visits from the likes of Hollywood stars Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich and Bing Crosby.
The high number of deaths from racing and training caused head-scratching and speculation about the nature of the cause or causes. One reason put forward is the fact that American track surfaces are made of dirt rather than turf, as they are in Europe and Australia. Dirt tracks see more fatalities than turf tracks, while synthetic tracks appear to be the safest surface type. Rain on dirt tracks can alter the consistency of the surface and thus increase risks of injury. The recent deaths at Santa Anita Park occurred during winter.

Another suggested reason for the high death toll was that horses in the US are allowed to be given medications like NSAIDS that can mask pain from existing conditions during racing. Protesters in the US have long argued that painkilling drugs should be banned because they predispose to racing injuries.

Yet another suggestion was the alleged pressure put on horse owners and trainers to run horses too hard and too often, even when they have risky physical conditions. It will be some time before the necroscopy reports of the 20+ dead horses are released. These post-mortems may shed further light on these issues. A further suggested cause of the large number of deaths is the fact that in the USA, unlike in Europe, horses only run in one direction, counter-clockwise.

Apart from temporarily closing the Park, the California Horse Racing Board responded to the incidents by reducing the use of whips by jockeys. Some jockeys and others, however, argued that the use of whips does not contribute to horse fatalities. The racing authorities took the measure of banning the use of race-day medication except for frusemide, which can now be used at 50 per cent of previous levels. The intention is to phase out Lasix completely in the next couple of years.
Inevitably, the story raised public questions about the moral justification and safety of horse racing in the US and elsewhere. Announcing the re-opening of Santa Anita, a racing spokesperson claimed that the welfare of the thoroughbreds, which he declared are much loved by those in the industry, must always come first. Yet an American trainer who has become a critic of horse racing culture wrote:

Galloping a healthy, sound and happy horse who loves to run is the most spiritual, magical thing I’ve experienced…A bond can be established that it truly otherworldly. But when a horse is hurt, aggressively medicated, and forced to train and race repeatedly at speeds that exceed their natural inclination, then it constitutes abuse. The current standard in American racing – lots of medication and extreme speeds on legs too young to endure it – is abusive and the horses have no choice in the matter whatsoever. (Link.)

Although the Santa Anita racing track hit the headlines because of the unusually large number of horse deaths, it is clear that horses do already die in numbers on race tracks in the US and elsewhere around the world. However, not all racing authorities keep or publish detailed records of horse deaths and the nature of horse break downs.

In Australia, the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses claims that 119 horses died on turf racing tracks between August 1 2017 and July 31 2018, or about one horse every 2-3 days. The activist group claims that most deaths are due to forelimb factures, followed by hindlimb fractures, then bleeding and cardiac events. Most deaths occur in flat racing, although jumps racing is allegedly 19 times more dangerous for horses.

Do the numbers of horses that die in training and racing represent a problem for the ethics of the horse racing industry? It appears that the racing body in the US which closed the Santa Anita race track believed that 20 or more deaths over winter were too many. But the year before, some 10 horses died on the track. This raises questions about horse racing, including here in Australia. Are a hundred deaths over a season of racing in Australia too many? Is anything more than, say, a handful horse racing deaths per year an ethical problem for Australian horse racing? How should the racing industry respond to these questions?

Do you have a question you’d like Simon to consider, or comments to offer on this month’s column? Email us.

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