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Horses, drugs and the Derby

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

By Kathy Guillermo

The horseracing industry is the new Lance Armstrong of the sports world. Before you mix your mint juleps or place that online bet for the Kentucky Derby, think about this: Everyone from the barn hand to the top trainer knows that horses in the racing industry are being doped in a quest to win. And like Armstrong, they deny, deny, deny.

But doping is the worst-kept secret in horseracing: It’s pervasive and entrenched. Equine performance-enhancing drugs are being concocted in barns and makeshift laboratories with no regulatory oversight. These backyard alchemists use anything available to see whether it will lead to faster race times: growth hormones, toxic chemicals, even Viagra.

Some trainers inject horses with cobra venom or dermorphin, a powerful opioid derived from the venom secreted by certain South American frogs. Others use a technique called “milkshaking,” which involves forcing a large quantity of sodium bicarbonate and sugar into a horse’s stomach through a tube. Both procedures are believed to make horses run races faster.

But it’s not just illegal drugs that keep unfit horses running—legal painkillers and anti-inflammatory corticosteroids are also being used, and they’re killing horses throughout North America. Nearly every horse used in racing is dosed with Lasix, an anti-bleeding medication that also acts as a diuretic, reducing bodyweight and thereby increasing speeds. Lasix also flushes out traces of other medications, which helps avoid detection of these drugs. Click to continue »

Kentucky Derby to be held Saturday – please steer clear of horse racing

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

By Kathy Guillermo

Several years after Eight Belles’ fatal breakdown during the Kentucky Derby, many of us still remember the heartbreak of seeing that beautiful filly lying in the dirt at Churchill Downs, her ankles shattered beyond repair.

The thoroughbred racing industry would have us believe that Eight Belles’ tragic death was a “freak accident,” but it wasn’t. Every single day, three horses, on average, suffer catastrophic injuries while racing and must be euthanized. This is no rare event. It’s business as usual.

Thousands of horses have died on U.S. tracks since the Eight Belles tragedy. And every month, 1,000 racehorses who don’t “measure up” are sent to other countries to be slaughtered for human consumption.

People who care about horses for horses’ sake must steer clear of the Triple Crown races if they don’t want to contribute to this staggering death toll.

In the weeks following Eight Belles’ death, there was much talk about reforming the horse-racing industry. And after being prodded by PETA, the racing industry did make some improvements, including banning steroids from the states in which Triple Crown races are run.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Racing insiders tell PETA that the misuse of legal drugs is still the biggest cause of breakdown and death, and the industry has yet to address this issue in any meaningful way.

Horse trainers have told us that in the days leading up to a race, strong anti-inflammatories, painkillers and muscle relaxants are legally injected into injured, sore horses to make them run when they should be recovering. Some horses are injected with drugs up to 30 times in the week before a race, and it’s all legal.

Then there are stories about the unusual substances, such as cobra venom, that are injected into horses in order to mask pain. There is no drug test for cobra venom. Many horses also undergo what industry insiders call “milkshaking”—forcing a large quantity of sodium bicarbonate and sugar into a horse’s stomach through a tube. This procedure is said to make them run faster during a race.

Drugging animals to make them do what they never would under natural conditions is abuse and must be stopped. It’s not enough to sound upset and make empty promises about reform.

The public deserves to know that the problems with horse racing didn’t end with Eight Belles. Horses are still being run to their deaths on racetracks. Most of them just never make the news.

So here’s my advice to racing fans who want to help push this industry to rein in its worst abuses. Don’t go. Don’t bet. And don’t watch.

Plan would spare thousands of horses from slaughter

Friday, May 6th, 2011

By Kathy Guillermo

U.S. thoroughbred racing is an industry of numbers. Consider the projected statistics for 2011 alone:

The number of horses running in the Kentucky Derby: no more than 20.

The number of thoroughbred foals born: 24,900.

The number of thoroughbreds who will die on the track: 1,000.

The number of thoroughbreds cast off by the racing industry: 21,000.

The number of thoroughbreds sent to slaughter in Canada and Mexico: 10,000.

Crunch those numbers and the conclusion is obvious. There are too many thoroughbreds born, too few retirement options, and way too many violent deaths.

The racing industry should be ashamed of these numbers — and of course every number isn’t a number at all, but a living, breathing being. When horses who have given their all can no longer race because they’re injured or too old, or when they stop turning a profit, most owners and trainers rid themselves of these animals by sending them to a livestock auction. One out of every two thoroughbreds sold at auction ends up in a slaughterhouse.

The Jockey Club, through which all foals must be registered and which is the only horse racing authority in a position to impose a fee that applies to all thoroughbreds in all racing states, responded to this crisis with its Retirement Checkoff program, a voluntary donation that can be made when owners submit required registration papers.

In 2010 this program generated only $43,000 from 30,000 foal registrations—a paltry $1.44 per horse. Even with the Jockey Club’s supplemental donation toward retirement, this absurdly inadequate amount cannot begin to provide for the enormous annual costs of caring for tens of thousands of horses, multiplied by many years of retirement. Recent reports of thoroughbreds being denied adequate food and care in the stables that are supposed to be supported by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation tragically prove this point.

The racing industry needs to deal with this life and death issue. Thoroughbred retirement is a racing industry obligation, not a voluntary donation.

While the best bet for the horses would be an end to breeding, racing, and killing thoroughbreds altogether, at the very least the racing world must provide a decent retirement for the horses it no longer wants.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has come up with a plan — the Thoroughbred 360 Lifecycle Retirement Fund — to jumpstart this effort. This proposal would require a mandatory $360 retirement fee with every foal registration, a $360 fee for every transfer of ownership, and a $360 fee for each stallion and broodmare registration.

This is affordable for thoroughbred owners and would generate more than $20 million toward retirement. It wouldn’t solve all the problems — clearly the fund would have to be used wisely. This would require proper planning and administration. But without a substantial sum, nothing will be done. Thoroughbreds will continue to be trucked across our borders to their deaths by the tens of thousands.

The Jockey Club should implement this plan before this Triple Crown season ends. Trainers and owners have turned their backs on the animals they claim to love for far too long.


Kathy Guillermo is vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

All bets are off: Steer clear of horse racing

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

By Kathy Guillermo

Two years after Eight Belles’ fatal breakdown during the Kentucky Derby, many of us still remember the heartbreak of seeing that beautiful filly lying in the dirt at Churchill Downs, her ankles shattered beyond repair.

The thoroughbred racing industry would have us believe that Eight Belles’ tragic death was a “freak accident,” but it wasn’t. Every single day, three horses, on average, suffer catastrophic injuries while racing and must be euthanized. This is no rare event. It’s business as usual.

At least 2,000 horses have died on U.S. tracks since the Eight Belles tragedy. And every month, 1,000 racehorses who don’t “measure up” are sent to other countries to be slaughtered for human consumption. Click to continue »