The Horse Racing Industry Is Fading – And So Are the Horses

Horse racing, once one of the world’s largest sports, now faces a severe decline. Grandstands that once held thousands now hold dozens, and attendance has plummeted for decades. The sport is losing fans, revenue and race days — and the animals are paying the price.

The horses’ owners are frustrated, too. They’ve worked hard to get their horses to the races. They’ve invested in trainers, veterinary services and the best equipment. They’ve made travel plans and put up with the uncertainty that comes when a race fills or an extra spot suddenly opens up. The best-laid plans can change in a heartbeat, and that can be frustrating when a horse is ready to run but must wait for the right chance to do so.

Many of these changes are driven by concern for the welfare of racehorses. The death of Eight Belles and the subsequent ensuing investigations into animal cruelty in racing and training sparked a reckoning that has led to increased scrutiny and improved equine health and safety. But it is a complicated problem, and the issues involved are deeply rooted in the business model of horse racing, which rewards the gamblers who wager money while exposing the equine athletes to enormous physical stress.

Despite these advances, horseracing remains one of the few major forms of gambling that still relies on a contest of speed and stamina. The earliest forms of organized racing date back to the 1600s, but betting became commonplace during the reign of Louis XIV. It soon outgrew its original purpose as a pastime for the leisure class into a huge entertainment and wagering industry.

While horse racing is a multibillion-dollar industry, it’s also a risky and dangerous one for the animals. The sport requires immense physical fitness and endurance, and it is not uncommon for horses to suffer from devastating breakdowns or die of exorbitantly high levels of stress. The 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Eight Belles died of a catastrophic cardiac episode just three years later. The death of another Kentucky Derby favorite, Medina Spirit, was equally tragic and sparked a similar reckoning that forced the industry to make significant improvements in animal welfare standards.

A recent study found that newspapers that use probabilistic forecasting to frame elections as a competitive game discourage voters by raising their cynicism about the politics featured in these stories. The study’s authors, Johanna Dunaway and Regina G. Lawrence, analyzed 10,784 print news articles about governor and Senate races in 2004, 2006 and 2008. They found that probability-based journalism is most prominent in news outlets with left-leaning audiences such as FiveThirtyEight and The New York Times.

Until the business model of horseracing is changed so that the best interests of the horses are placed above the gamblers’ money, the suffering will continue. The good news is that the public has more awareness of the issues facing horse racing and has grown increasingly supportive of the equine welfare initiatives. Let’s hope that as the public continues to learn more about the dark side of horse racing – including abuse, overbreeding and slaughter – it will push the industry to change course.