Are Thoroughbred Racehorses Being "(in)bred to Death?"

Liz is a licensed veterinary medical technologist. She acquired a B.S. in veterinary medical technology from Lincoln Memorial University.

The Rise of the Thoroughbred

The Thoroughbred horse breed was established in England in the early 1600s by crossing Arabian stallions that were imported into England with indigenous light mares (Binns, 2012; Thiruvenkadan, 2008). The founder population was small, with all current English and American Thoroughbred males tracing their lines back to at least one of three stallions, the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arabian (Binns, 2012). The Byerly Turk reached England in 1689, followed by the Darley Arabian around 1705, and then the Godolphin Arabian around 1729 (Thiruvenkadan, 2008). In comparison, about 70 founding mares have been identified (Binns, 2012). Every horse in the Thoroughbred pedigree can be traced back to at least one of these 70 foundation mares (called the Royal Mares) and also to at least one of three stallions: Matchem, grandson of the Godolphin Arabian; Herod, great-great-grandson of the Byerly Turk; and Eclipse, great-great-grandson of the Darley Arabian (Thiruvenkadan, 2008).

According to a study by Cunningham (2001), 95% of all male Thoroughbred lines trace back to Eclipse. The first recording of Thoroughbreds in England was made in 1791 as a General Stud Book, with the first volume emerging in 1793 and undergoing revisions in 1803, 1808, 1827, 1858, and 1891 (Thiruvenkadan, 2008). The stud book now contains about 500,000 horses and is sustained by Thoroughbred registries around the world (Binns, 2012). The Thoroughbred breed may hold the oldest recorded pedigree for any domestic animal population and are some of the most valuable animals in the world (Bailey, 1998).

The Thoroughbred is one of the most adaptable breeds and has also shaped the progress of many other light horse breeds. Thoroughbreds are primarily used as racehorses but are also used in and excel at a variety of other disciplines, such as hunter-jumping, dressage, three-day events, polo, working cattle, and more (Thiruvenkadan, 2008). Thoroughbreds were bred for speed at long distances, as racing usually consists of distances of six furlongs (3/4 mile) to 1.5 miles (Thiruvenkadan, 2008). Today’s Thoroughbreds are usually 15.1–16.2 hands tall and weigh anywhere from a light 900 pounds to a massive 1,200 pounds (Thiruvenkadan, 2008). Thoroughbred foals born in the Northern Hemisphere technically become a year older on January first, and those born in the Southern Hemisphere turn a year old on July 1st and August 1st; these artificial dates were created to enable the standardization of age groups for racing purposes (Thiruvenkadan, 2008).

According to pedigree records, up to 30 founding stock Thoroughbred horses currently contribute to almost 80% of the pedigree to modern their modern decedents (Cunningham, 2001). In this sense, it is true that the breed essentially started out inbred. However, this estimate ignores the number of any additional mares that were introduced to the breeding population when the Thoroughbred officially became an international breed and also does not consider the offspring of the Thoroughbred stallions from England that were crossed with non-Thoroughbred mares in the United States, Australia, and other countries during the 1800s (Bailey, 1998). Nonetheless, the breed obviously has a very narrow genetic base, and one could safely suspect very limited genetic variation within the breed and infertility problems associated with inbreeding.

The Thoroughbred breed population is currently estimated at more than 300,000 worldwide (Cunningham, 2001). Because the breeding population is effectively closed, there is rising concern about the potential loss of genetic variation. A number of studies have found significant effects of inbreeding on the athletic and reproductive fitness of the breed, yet others have not (Mahon, 1982; Cunningham, 2001). Whether the breed is currently experiencing detrimental effects of inbreeding or not, there is still ongoing concern that the ever-narrowing gene pool of the Thoroughbred may be restricting genetic progress in both athletic and reproductive performance and contributing to eventually increased frequency of heritable diseases (Cunningham, 2001).

The Evidence

As of 2001, 78% of the alleles in the Thoroughbred population are confirmed to be derived from 30 founding horses (27 of them being male), 10 founder females account for 72% of maternal lineages, and a single founder stallion accounts for 95% of paternal lineages (Cunningham, 2001). Based on data on protein polymorphisms descended from previous parentage analysis from the same study, the average inbreeding coefficient based on Thoroughbred pedigrees was 12.5%, making the breed the most inbred breed to be analyzed so far (Cunningham, 2001). Thoroughbred inbreeding was found to have increased over the past 40 years, with resulting statistics of r = 0.24 and P < 0.001 establishing a substantially significant, though the somewhat weak correlation between the birth year of each horse and their inbreeding coefficients (Binns, 2011). Within that same study, it was noted that the majority of the incline in inbreeding coefficients occurred after 1996, and also corresponds with the introduction of larger numbers of coverings among top stallions (Binns, 2011).

In a pedigree analysis of the Thoroughbred population in Hungary, more than 94% of the 3,043 racehorses studied from 1998 to 2010 were found to be moderate to significantly inbred, with an average inbreeding coefficient for the population as a whole of 9.58% (Bokor, 2012). This study also found that from 1998 to 2008, the rate of inbreeding had increased 0.3%, forecasting a continued increase in inbreeding rates (Bokor, 2012). The effective population was above 100 for the last 30 generations, demonstrating that the genetic diversity did not decrease to a level in which long-term breeding selection was impossible, but avoidable (Bokor, 2012). DNA analysis of the Thoroughbred population in Bulgaria demonstrated negative inbreeding rates within the population, which indicated a total lack of heterozygote deficiencies within the population, yet the inbreeding index indicated that the population’s genetic differentiation was still moderate at best (Vlaeva, 2015). Results from a study of genetic diversity of the Thoroughbred population in Bosnia and Herzegovnia suggested that the current population has not been significantly affected by a loss of genetic diversity, indicating preservation of moderately high levels of genetic variability within these populations (Rukavina, 2016).

A study of racing Thoroughbreds in Ireland in 1988 indicated no significant increase in race-winning times from 1952–1977, though the evidence did not suggest that this failure to improve was due to increased inbreeding coefficients or insufficient genetic variance (Gaffney, 1988). However, a study of 217 racing Thoroughbreds compared winning times and inbreeding coefficients in Japan over the past 60 years and demonstrated inbreeding coefficients of 6.43 +/- 9.17% and a significant shortening in winning times associated with increased inbreeding coefficients (Amano, 2006). However, the same study also demonstrated, on average, a younger age at the first race, and a decline in the length of the racing career (from 3.6 years in the late 1940s to just 1.4 years as of 2006), also found to coincide with increased inbreeding coefficients (Amano, 2006). Still, a later study demonstrated that the winning times of racehorses as a whole worldwide have not improved significantly over the past 40 years, with improvements in racing times beginning to plateau as fewer numbers of stallions began covering larger numbers of mares per breeding season (Thiruvenkadan, 2009).

A 2005 study of the heritability for tying-up syndrome in Thoroughbred racehorses found moderate correlations between increased inbreeding coefficients and the prevalence of tying-up syndrome in racehorses (Oki, 2005). A similar cohort study in 2008 found that the heritability of superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT) injuries in Thoroughbreds was also moderate, and suggested that appropriate breeding practices and molecular genetic approaches could be beneficial in reducing the prevalence of SDFT injuries on the racetrack (Oki, 2008). Interestingly in 2006, a study on the effects of censored data on the heritability in the Thoroughbred racing industry found that previous estimates of genetic heritability for traits that determine longevity and conformation were biased downwardly from 10- 25% due to the censoring of poor-performing animals, suggesting that previous and potentially current estimations of genetic heritability are underestimated and are more prevalent than reported (Burns, 2006).

In 1982, a study on the relationship between inbreeding and fertility in Thoroughbred mares in Ireland found that although lower fertility was associated with increased inbreeding coefficients, the effects were not statistically significant and that the mating of close relatives was rare enough to not become an important source of genetic variation (Mahon). A study of the reproductive efficiency of 1,393 Thoroughbred mares in stud farms in the Newmarket region of the UK in 2002 noted minimal improvements in the foaling rates of mares over 15 years (from 77% in 1983 to 82.7% 1998), but asserted that the overall rate of pregnancy failure in Newmarket mares still remains high and a major detriment to the Thoroughbred breeding industry, noting the significant decrease in the number of stallions covering a significantly increased number of mares per breeding season over the last few decades (Morris). Although pregnancy rates of Thoroughbred mares have improved to the point that 94.8% of mares (1084 of 1144) were confirmed pregnant at some point in the breeding season over the past 35 years, high levels of embryonic loss also occur, such that a foaling rate of only 82.7% (946 of 1144) was seen in the same study (Binns, 2012). Comparisons between foaling rates of Thoroughbred mares with varying inbreeding levels in a later study on a global scale indicated that mare fertility rates declined by 7% for every 10% increase in inbreeding coefficients (Thiruvenkadan, 2009).

Significance in Today's Industry

Increased inbreeding has been found to have undesirable effects on the overall performance of many equine breeds. Perhaps the most widespread sign that a breed has become compromised by high rates of inbreeding is reproductive depression (Binns, 2012). This is thought to be the result of the increased proportion of embryos that are homozygous for lethal recessive alleles (Binns, 2012). It is difficult to determine whether such consequences are actually occurring in Thoroughbred horses due the progression of new veterinary reproductive practices, such as utilizing hormones to induce estrus and ovulation, that could conceal any adverse effects of inbreeding (Binns, 2012). As a result of these practices, increases in pregnancy rates have occurred; however, decreases in successful foaling rates (or increases in pregnancy losses) have also been noted (Binns, 2012). These losses are coherent with reproductive depression, although not proven to be caused by it.

The Thoroughbred breeding industry has transformed drastically in the past 40 years, with a renewed emphasis aimed at the production of yearlings that will bring as much money as possible at auction, instead of the previous goal of producing superior racehorses (Binns, 2012). As a result, a large decline in the number of available breeding stallions available and a large increase in the demand for of foals sired by popular stallions has been seen due to this shift in commercial pressures (Binns, 2012). Almost half a century ago, the average stallion covered a maximum of 40 mares in a single breeding season, compared to many of today’s stallions that may cover nearly 200 mares in a single season (Binns, 2012). These changes lower the breeding population size, limit genetic variation, and result in increased inbreeding over time.

Recent studies on the genetics of today’s Thoroughbreds are discovering that these animals are becoming even more genetically similar, a situation that is creating a possibly precarious situation for the breed as a whole (Gibbons, 2014). As a decreasing number of stallions sire an increasing number of foals, some veterinarians are beginning to think that inbreeding is hurting thoroughbred stock. At the same time, difficult times in the racing industry have further reduced the total number of new thoroughbred foals registered each year, from 51,000 foals in the year 1986, down to just 23,000 in 2013 (Gibbons, 2014). These trends work together to synergistically shrink the breed’s gene pool at an increasing rate.

The top modern thoroughbred stallions demand stud fees that are dependent upon their speed over the distance of the track, their total racing earnings, and on how well the foals they produce perform (Gibbons, 2014). This system balanced the breed’s speed and durability well up until the 1980s, when the stud fees for stallions like Northern Dancer soared to $1 million, and yearlings began to sell at auction for as much as $13 million (Gibbons, 2014). This appeal to high-dollar horses led to a commercial shift toward a new kind of stallion called “shuttle stallions,” who are flown into other countries for the breeding season to be studded out (Gibbons, 2014). In this way, some shuttle stallions may breed with 300-400 mares per year, a sharp contrast with the up to 40 mares a year most stallions covered 50 years ago (Gibbons, 2014). According to a study in Animal Genetics, this creates a sort of “Genghis Khan” effect, where only a few stallions dominate the gene pool and effectively create a genetic monopoly (Binns, 2012).

According to Dr. Carrie Finno, a veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, Thoroughbreds are “so inbred, they're like purebred dogs” (Gibbons, 2014). Dr. Doug Antczak, a veterinary immunologist who specializes in equines at Cornell University, added that, “Thoroughbreds are almost like clones, compared to other breeds” (Gibbons, 2014).

According to Finno, the resulting genetic congestion could eventually make the breed vulnerable to emerging infections, and more likely to retain genes that predispose them to certain diseases, fertility problems, physical malformations, and other crippling conditions (Gibbons, 2014). Some researchers reject these concerns, claiming that breeding for performance has prevented these horses from inheriting devastating genetic diseases since sick or defective animals cannot perform well enough to race, and therefore do not make it into the breeding shed (Gibbons, 2014). Other breeders assert that there are fewer recessive diseases in thoroughbreds than in any other equine breed, but Finno suggests that the funding for research on this topic has not yet been attainable to find the relevant genes. “Everyone knows they're inbred. The question is, what are they going to do about it?” she says (Gibbons, 2014).

“Everyone knows they're inbred. The question is, what are they going to do about it?”

— Dr. Carrie Finno, University of California, Davis

Barbaro Injury, Peakness Stakes 2006

The Visible Effects

So what obvious effects of inbreeding, if any, can be seen in modern Thoroughbreds? Today's thoroughbreds are almost two hands (8 inches) taller on average than the original founding Thoroughbreds of the 1750s, have larger muscles balanced on thinner legs, and smaller hooves, resulting in top-heavy animals whose smaller bones have become more likely to break at high speeds (Thiruvenkadan, 2008; Gibbons, 2014). Back in 2006, the Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, racing in the Preakness Stakes, suffered devastating hind limb fractures during the Preakness Stakes race (Binns, 2012). In spite of costly efforts to save his life, the stallion eventually had to be euthanized from complications and laminitis resulting from the fractures (Binns, 2012). Back in 2008, the promising filly Eight Belles pulled up after placing 2nd in the Kentucky Derby with both front legs fractured, and had to be euthanized immediately on the track (Binns, 2012). These were just two instances of many breakdowns that have occurred on the track, yet these breakdowns of two high-dollar horses so close together, and being witnessed by millions of viewers, prompted headlines in sources such as the Washington Post and the L.A. Times, begging the question as to whether the Thoroughbred breed was being “(in)bred to death” (Binns, 2012).

As inbreeding has increased, individual thoroughbreds are starting in significantly fewer races, and retiring significantly earlier as when compared with their ancestors racing 40 years ago, prompting widespread speculation that the breed is becoming increasingly unsound (Binns, 2012, Gibbons, 2014). Resident veterinarian Dr. Jeanne Bowers at Harris Farms in Coalinga, California, where California Chrome was bred and raised, says that she has seen it all- Thoroughbreds who fracture bones at their joints, causing premature arthritis; horses whose lungs hemorrhage when running; horses who “roar” and struggle to breathe when they run due to airway constriction; foals that are born with respiratory ailments (Gibbons, 2014). She also says that from what she has seen, infertility and foal losses due to inbreeding have become a “huge” problem in thoroughbreds (Gibbons, 2014).

Eight Belles Breaking Down at Kentucky Derby 134

The Conclusion?

According to the overall results of the above studies, the Thoroughbred breed has, if moderately, experienced some type of negative repercussions from a continued lineage of inbreeding. With the racing industry in its current state and the profitability of the current breeding practices, breeders have little incentive to make effort to halt their contribution to this growing problem. Up until recently, the genetics of racehorses have not exactly been a customary topic reflected in research laboratories. However, the recent development of new molecular tools could provide new insight to this issue (Bailey, 1998). Breeders around the world have begun to use genetics to test yearlings for a specific “speed gene” discovered several years ago by a team at the University College Dublin and the chairman of Equinome (Gibbons, 2014). This gene is believed to determine variation in muscle development in equines, and can be used to estimate whether a horse will a sprinter or a distance runner (Gibbons, 2014). However, will breeders use this information to breed healthier horses, or just ones that will cross the finish line first?

Recommended by the Author


Amano, S., Kobayashi, S. (2006). Study on Inbreeding Effects and Racing Periods in Thoroughbred Horse Breeding. Meiji Univ., Kawasaki, Kanagawa (Japan) School of Agriculture.

Bailey, E. (1998). Odds on the Fast Gene. Genome Research, 8: 569-571. doi: 10.1101/gr.8.6.569

Binns, M. M., Boehler, D. A., Bailey, E., Lear, T. L., Cardwell, J. M. and Lambert, D. H. (2012). Inbreeding in the Thoroughbred horse. Animal Genetics, 43: 340-342. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2052.2011.02259.x

Bokor, A., Jónás, D., Ducro, B., Nagy, I., Bokor, J., Szabari, M. (2013). Pedigree Analysis of the Hungarian Thoroughbred Population. Livestock Science, 151(1): 1-10.

Burns, E.M., Enns, R.M., Garrick D.J. The Effect of Simulated Censored Data on Estimates of Heritability of Longevity in the Thoroughbred Racing Industry. Genetics and Molecular Research, 5(1): 7-15.

Cunningham E.P., Dooley J.J., Splan R.K., Bradley D.G. (2001). Microsatellite Diversity, Pedigree Relatedness and the Contributions of Founder Lineages to Thoroughbred Horses. Animal Genetics, 32(6): 360-364. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2052.2001.00785.x

Gaffney, B., Cunningham, E.P. (1988). Estimation of Genetic Trend in Racing Performance of Thoroughbred Horses. Nature, 332: 722-724. doi:10.1038/332722a0

Gibbons, A. (2014). Racing for Disaster? Science, 344(6189): 1213-1214.
doi: 10.1126/science.344.6189.1213

Mahon, G.A.T., Cunningham, E.P. (1982). Inbreeding and the Inheritance of Fertility in the Thoroughbred Mare. Livestock Production Science, 9: 743-754.

Morris, L.H.A., Allen, W.R. (2002). Reproductive Efficiency of Intensively Managed Thoroughbred Mares in Newmarket. Equine Veterinary Journal, 34: 51-60. doi:10.2746/042516402776181222

Oki, H., Miyake, T., Kasashima, Y. and Sasaki, Y. (2008). Estimation of Heritability for Superficial Digital Flexor Tendon Injury by Gibbs Sampling in the Thoroughbred Racehorse. Journal of Animal Breeding and Genetics, 125: 413-416. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0388.2008.00758.x

Oki, H., Miyake, T., Hasegawa, T. (2005). Estimation of Heritability for Tying-up Syndrome in the Thoroughbred Racehorse by Gibbs Sampling. Journal of Animal Breeding and Genetics, 122: 289-293. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0388.2005.00539.x

Rukavina, D.; Hasanbašić, D.; Ramić, J.; Zahirović, A.; Ajanović, A.; Beganović, K.; Durmić-Pašić, A.; Kalamujić, B.; Pojskić, N. (2016). Genetic Diversity of Thoroughbred Horse Population from Bosnia and Herzegovina based on 17 Microsatellite Markers. Japanese Journal of Veterinary Research, 64(3): 215-220.

Sairanen, J., Nivola, K., Katila, T., Virtala, A.-M. and Ojala, M. (2009). Effects of Inbreeding and Other Genetic Components on Equine Fertility. Animal, 3(12): 1662-1672. doi: 10.1017/S1751731109990553.

Thiruvenkadan, A.K., Kandasamy, N., Panneerselvam, S. (2008) Inheritance of Racing Performance of Thoroughbred Horses. Livestock Science, 121(2-3): 308-326.

Vlaeva1, R., Lukanova, N. (2015). DNA Microsatellite Analysis of the Thoroughbred Horse Population in Bulgaria: Genetic Relationships between the Studied Sirelines. Trakia Journal of Sciences, 1: 83-87. doi:10.15547/tjs.2015.01.011

Questions & Answers

Question: How much do horses cost?

Answer: That's a very broad question. Generally (in my area anyway), the average cost of a typical horse itself can average anywhere from $500 to $1,500. Performance and stud horses can sell for tens to hundreds of thousands. The average cost of a TYPICAL horse (including food, hoof care, veterinary care, etc.) can average around $2,000 to $4,000 per year, or around $200 to $400 per month. This all varies upon what type of horse you get, what you use it for, what you feed it, how well you care for it, etc. Performance and breeding horses can cost way more.

© 2018 Liz Hardin

Ghost of Ruffian on October 27, 2019:

I think this topic hits the nail on the head: developing essentially flawed athletes results in broken ankles, shoulders, etc, & running them the way they do, throw in the drugs & greed & you can see what went wrong with thorobred racing. Look at all the triple crown winners from decades back: they were less inbred & more sound. Analyze the dna of each downed horse & determine its inbred percentage & compare with those who retire sound after more than 2 yrs racing.

Liz Hardin (author) from Tennessee on May 18, 2018:

Thank you for your input. I was honestly completely unaware that inbreeding was an issue with species such as hamsters and chinchillas as well, and I work with these species in practice. You learn something new every day.

The main goal of this small "study" wasn't really focused on human involvement itself, hence why it does not go into much detail on that subject, but to essentially determine if there was a correlation between inbreeding coefficients and any recurring health issues within the breed. Clearly its hardly a "yes or no" question and has been the cause of much debate between equine experts for some time now.

That being said, I'm glad you brought that up, as human involvement on this issue could be a MASSIVE topic all on its own. In a nutshell, the main reason in which more is not being down to prevent this bottlenecking breeding issue comes down to... you guessed it, MONEY. And a lot of it. Yes, Thoroughbreds are crossed with unrelated other breeds for disciples such as racing, dressage, show jumping, cross country, etc. to create superior athletes all the time; racehorses do not necessarily have to be purebred. However, there is a perceived financial gain and extra marketability in having a pure Thoroughbred racer. Generally speaking, purebred champions are much more valuable in the breeding shed than those who are mixed breeds. This goes without mentioning breed registries and their standards, which add another layer to the issue. This mentality exists in other domestic species, such as dogs, as well.

Of course, these perceived differences in value are all artificial; its all about making the animal more marketable, not necessarily about creating a better performing individual. Just because an animal is purebred does not inherently make it a genetically superior specimen to another (for example, look at the overall health issues of mutts vs. purebred dogs). Luckily, some individuals have looked through all the dollar signs to see that this mentality is indeed flawed and creating potentially growing issues for the breed, hence why all of these wonderful studies on the topic exist. Hopefully the results of such studies take root in the minds of current breeders, and maybe we will see this issue begin to decline in our lifetime instead of grow.

Hope this helps to answer your questions. Thanks again for reading.

Theophanes Avery from New England on May 17, 2018:

Fascinating. I don't know a thing about horses but I know quite a bit about inbreeding and it can be a real quagmire. Most "pure bred" domestic animals suffer from this issue. Chinchillas, as an example, started with only six individuals if I recall right. Syrian hamsters are even worse, all descending from one mother and her pups. It's no wonder they furry little cancer machines.

With all that being said you've said remarkably little about the humans involved. Is there anyone working to cross new unrelated blood into the breed? Or at least a reason why that's not being done? Do race horses have to be purebred? I understand breeders are trying to create the fastest horse by crossing to other fast horses but surely someone must see this overly simplistic idea of genetics is flawed and causing problems??

Anyway, very well researched and written article. You're already starting on top! Hope to see you around again. Cheers.

On the market

The 'yearling' sales of thoroughbred colts and fillies draw the 'horsey' crowd — the monied people. Most yearlings sell for tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the gamble starts right there with the owners and trainers hoping to 'back a winner' and to have the next great champion, or at least recoup their outlay.

The scale of the industry is huge — around 15,000 thoroughbred foals are bred each year in Australia, and a similar number of standard bred foals are born nationally.

3. Risk of injury and death

Racehorses are at risk of harm during races, training and trials with the main types of injuries involving muscle, bones, tendons and ligaments. Serious injuries such as fractures and ruptured ligaments or tendons which cause pain or distress, and cannot be treated should result in immediate euthanasia. Racehorses may also die suddenly during or after a race, which may be due to heart failure or other causes such as the condition known as Exercise Induced Pulmonary Haemorrhage (EIPH), where bleeding into the lungs occurs. This has been related to over-exertion where horses may be pushed too hard to win.

Two recent studies highlight the risks associated with excessively rigorous training programs including high speed and long distances. One study which surveyed 66 Victorian racehorse trainers found that more than half involving high volumes of galloping exceeded the reported risk levels for muscle and bone injuries [1]. The other study found that as the total distance of high speed exercise (training and racing combined) increased, the risk of muscle and bone injuries increased [2].

Non-fatal injuries in training, trials or racing do not require immediate euthanasia on humane grounds, and may involve repairable fractures or ligament/tendon damage. However, considerable pain can be experienced in relation to the acute injury as evidenced by lameness, as well as possible pain endured during the healing process and/or treatment regime. A recent study of Australian racing thoroughbreds found a very high prevalence of bone injury and fatigue, especially in older horses with a long history of racing and training [3]. The authors concluded that this evidence suggests that horses require longer rest periods than what is currently practised in the racing industry, to allow bone healing and recovery.

The industry does not provide collated statistics on injuries and fate of racehorses, so a true figure of overall injuries is not available. The RSPCA supports the mandatory collection and publication of comprehensive life cycle and injury statistics for all racehorses.

The Horseracing Industry: Drugs, Deception and Death

They weigh at least 1,000 pounds, have legs that are supported by ankles the size of a human’s, and are forced to run around dirt tracks at speeds of more than 30 miles per hour while carrying people on their backs. 1 Racehorses are the victims of a multibillion-dollar industry that is rife with drug abuse, injuries, and race fixing, and many horses’ careers end in slaughterhouses. A New York Daily News reporter remarked, “The thoroughbred race horse is a genetic mistake. It runs too fast, its frame is too large, and its legs are far too small. As long as mankind demands that it run at high speeds under stressful conditions, horses will die at racetracks.” 2

The Starting Gate
Racehorses can cost millions of dollars and are often purchased by syndicates, which may be composed of thousands of members. 3,4 There are also trainers, handlers, veterinarians, and jockeys involved, so a horse is rarely able to develop any kind of bond with one person or with other horses. Racehorses travel from country to country, state to state, and racetrack to racetrack, so few horses are able to call one place “home.” Most do not end up in the well-publicized races but are instead trucked, shipped, or flown to the thousands of other races that take place all across the country every year.

Racing to the Grave
Horses begin training or are already racing when their skeletal systems are still growing and are unprepared to handle the pressures of running on a hard track at high speeds. 5 Improved medical treatment and technological advancements have done little to remedy the plight of the racehorse. Between 700 and 800 racehorses are injured and die every year, with a national average of about two breakdowns for every 1,000 starts. 6 According to The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, nearly 10 horses died every week at American racetracks in 2018. 7 At Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, 37 horses died within a year, causing the Los Angeles District Attorney to conduct the first-ever criminal investigation into the culpability of trainers and veterinarians who medicate horses for soreness and injury and then put them on the track. 8 Strained tendons or hairline fractures can be tough for veterinarians to diagnose, and the damage may go from minor to irreversible at the next race or workout. Horses do not handle surgery well, as they tend to be disoriented when coming out of anesthesia, and they may fight casts or slings, possibly causing further injury. Many are euthanized in order to save the owners further veterinary fees and other expenses for horses who will never race again.

PETA exposed the horse-racing industry’s “breezes” for 2-year-old horses in training—shows in which auction companies show off young horses to potential buyers by pushing them to run a furlong (one-eighth of a mile) at faster speeds than they would ever run in actual races. An equine veterinarian told The Wall Street Journal that the exercises can be “dangerous because they are market driven.” The veterinarian added, “You have a large number of participants in the horse industry … that essentially invest in [racehorses] like stocks.” 9

Given the huge investment that owning a horse requires, reported one Kentucky newspaper, “simply sending one to pasture, injured or not, is not an option all owners are willing to consider.” 10 Care for a single horse can cost as much as $55,000 per year. 11 When popular racehorse Barbaro suffered a shattered ankle at the beginning of the 2006 Preakness, his owners spared no expense for his medical needs, but as The New York Times reported, “[M]any in the business have noted that had Barbaro not been the winner of the Kentucky Derby, he might have been destroyed after being injured.” 12 Compare Barbaro’s story to that of Magic Man, who stepped into an uneven section of a track and broke both front legs during a race at Saratoga Race Course. His owner had bought him for $900,000, yet the horse hadn’t earned any money yet and—unproven on the track—wasn’t worth much as a stud, so he was euthanized. 13 Eight Belles suffered a similar fate when she broke both her front ankles after crossing the finish line in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. 14

Drugs and Deception
Many racehorses become addicted to drugs when their trainers and even veterinarians give them drugs to keep them on the track when they shouldn’t be racing. “Finding an American racehorse trained on the traditional hay, oats, and water probably would be impossible,” commented one reporter. 15

“There are trainers pumping horses full of illegal drugs every day,” says a former Churchill Downs public relations director. 16 “With so much money on the line, people will do anything to make their horses run faster.” Which drugs are legal varies from state to state, with Kentucky holding the reputation as the most lenient state. 17 The New York Sun explained that because “thoroughbreds are bred for flashy speed and to look good in the sales ring … the animal itself has become more fragile” and that “to keep the horses going,” they’re all given Lasix (which controls bleeding in the lungs), phenylbutazone (an anti-inflammatory), and cortiscosteroids (for pain and inflammation). 18 Those drugs, although legal, can also mask pain or make a horse run faster. Labs cannot detect all the illegal drugs out there, of which there “could be thousands,” says the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. 19

Rick Dutrow, the trainer of 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, openly admitted to giving his horses Winstrol, a steroid that is illegal for equine use in 10 states, although not in the three that host the Triple Crown. Before it was banned in Pennsylvania, nearly 1,000 horses were tested for steroids and more than 60 percent tested positive. Big Brown’s veterinarian concedes that “without steroids, they’d lose some horses that can’t keep up the pace and race every three weeks or every month.” 20 Dutrow was suspended for 10 years in 2011 by the New York racing board for repeated drug violations, although a stay was issued while he appealed the board’s decision, allowing him to continue to work with horses. 21

During an undercover investigation conducted in 2013, PETA found that one trainer was subjecting horses to an aggressive, daily regimen of pain-masking drugs and treatments in order to mask the animals’ pain and enhance their performance. For more on this investigation, please visit

Even the ‘Winners’ Lose
Few racehorses are retired to pastures for pampering and visits from caring individuals.

An insurance scandal cost the life of Alydar, who came in second in all three races of the 1978 Triple Crown and fathered many fast horses. After being retired from racing in order to serve as a stud at a Kentucky farm, Alydar was originally believed to have shattered his leg by kicking a stall door and was euthanized when he wasn’t able to maintain a splint. 22 Ten years later, an FBI investigation revealed that his leg was deliberately broken when it was tied by a rope to a pickup truck. 23

One Colorado State University study found that of 1,348 horses sent to slaughter, 58 were known to be former racehorses. 24 PETA rescued a thoroughbred named Coming Home, who is the granddaughter of a Kentucky Derby winner, just after she had been sold at auction for $200 to a meat buyer.

Ferdinand, a Derby winner and Horse of the Year in 1987, was retired to Claiborne Farms and then changed hands at least twice before being “disposed of” in Japan a reporter covering the story concluded, “No one can say for sure when and where Ferdinand met his end, but it would seem clear he met it in a slaughterhouse.” 25 Exceller, a million-dollar racehorse who was inducted into the National Racing Museum’s Hall of Fame, was killed at a Swedish slaughterhouse. 26 During an undercover investigation inside Japan’s largest horse slaughterhouse in Kumamoto, PETA captured video footage of a thoroughbred’s last tragic minutes.

Although there are currently no equine slaughterhouses in the U.S., Congress has approved funding for inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should any equine slaughterhouses open, paving the way for horse slaughter in the U.S. to resume. 27 In the meantime, there is still a horsemeat export industry that sends tens of thousands of horses every year to Canada, Mexico, and Japan for slaughter. 28

A 10-month PETA US investigation revealed that the South Korean horseracing industry sends thousands of horses to slaughter, including many American horses and their offspring. South Korea aggressively imports and breeds American racehorses in an effort to raise the quality of its races, on which South Koreans bet US$8 billion annually. U.S. auction houses—including Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company, Fasig-Tipton, and Keeneland—as well as private parties sell approximately 400 horses to South Korea each year at a cost of about $10 million total. But the Korean racing industry discards as many horses as it brings in, and while it “retires” more than 1,600 horses per year, they admit that only about 3% end up at other equestrian facilities. Most are sent to slaughter, usually at the Nonghyup abattoir on Jeju Island, where horsemeat restaurants abound. 29 For more on this investigation, please visit Since this investigation, the Stronach Group, a company that manages North American racetracks, has endorsed PETA’s efforts to ban the sale of thoroughbreds to South Korean racing interests and is encouraging “all North American auction companies, breeders, and owners to develop policies that prohibit the sale of Thoroughbred racehorses or brood mares to South Korea without the meaningful and binding assurances that these noble animals will be protected after their racing and breeding careers.” 30

Most horses who are sent to those slaughter are forced to endure days of transport in cramped trailers. 31 Usually, there is no access to water or food, and injuries are common: A University of California– Davis study of 306 horses destined for slaughter found that 60 of them sustained injuries during transport. 32 While veterinarians recommend that horses be offloaded for food and water every four hours while traveling, the USDA allows horses to be shipped for 28 hours without a break. 33 Horses are subject to the same method of slaughter as cows, but since horses are generally not accustomed to being herded, they tend to thrash about in order to avoid the pneumatic gun that is supposed to render them unconscious before their throats are cut. 34

What You Can Do
In a commentary on the racing industry, a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News remarked, “It is not something they talk about much in their advertising, but horses die in this sport all the time—every day, every single day.” 35 Help stop cruelty in the horseracing industry: Work to ensure that racing regulations are reformed and enforced, lobby against the construction of new tracks, and educate your friends and family members about the tragic lives that racehorses lead. Please urge your legislator to cosponsor the Horseracing Integrity Act to protect horses nationwide from drugging.

Put the horse-racing fatalities in perspective

ARCADIA, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 02: Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard Vino Rosso reacts after winning the Breeders' Cup Classic race at Santa Anita Park on November 02, 2019 in Arcadia, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images

Once, we all worked and lived in partnership with animals. They helped us plow our fields, carried us from place to place, slept with us, ate with us, played games with us. Now many of us live a life almost divorced of contact with animals, except maybe a pet or two. The work animals are still there, doing their jobs, but are now cared for by fewer people. Many of us no longer see these animals with any regularity, and we especially don’t see them getting injured or dying.

It upsets us very much the rare times we do see it.

Earlier this year, Santa Anita racetrack had a problem: a cluster of more than 30 horse deaths. The deaths sparked outrage and prompted calls to reform or even eliminate horse racing altogether. Since then, Santa Anita has enacted protocols, and the rate of horse death has steeply declined.

But despite these strict new practices, a horse named Mongolian Groom broke down in the Breeders’ Cup Classic race — one of racing’s biggest — at Santa Anita earlier this month and had to be put down. His death demonstrates an unfortunate truth about racing and about any shared animal and human endeavor — risk of death cannot be eliminated altogether.

Though many of us no longer work with animals, we are still deeply drawn to them. Eighty-five million of us in this country own pets. In doing so, we participate in a system that leads to about 2 million unwanted animals being killed each year. None of us like this statistic, but we mostly accept it as part of the cost of being able to have a pet. Plus, we accept that our pets are domesticated animals, bred over centuries to be human companions.

We know that they are inextricably a part of the human world, for better or worse. Often for better.

The same is true for thoroughbred racehorses. They have been bred over many hundreds of years to work with humans to do one thing: run. These aren’t plow or riding or carriage horses, plucked from other work and forced to run. Racing is their job, and if given proper care and training, they do it well, healthfully and with palpable satisfaction.

So why do we accept the statistic about pet death but feel outrage at the idea of a racehorse breaking down and being put down? Statistically, far fewer horses are put down on racetracks than pets in shelters. Part of it is that we see an animal like Mongolian Groom break down in its prime, on the track, whereas we don’t witness stray dogs and cats being put down in shelters in theirs.

Another part is that we don’t think of racing as essential, either to us or the animal. Why should any animal suffer for our sport? But that same argument can be made about pets. Why should any animal suffer so we can have companionship?

I think it is our distance from some of the realities of animal domestication that causes our outrage. We don’t understand that working animals have accidents or that racehorses can’t just be given some other job or turned out to some (very, very, very) big pasture to live out their days.

And I think some of our outrage is fueled by subconscious guilt. We ourselves make a dozen decisions a day that lead directly and indirectly to far more animal death, decisions like eating meat, wearing leather, using land, driving a car.

Is it possible to reduce the number of racehorse deaths? It is, and I believe that horse racing is already on a path to making it so. But some death is inevitable. Just as it is with pet ownership. Just as it is in any life still shared between humans and animals, a life nearly all of us believe is a better one.

Peter Fornatale is host of “In the Money Players’ Podcast.”

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