Since May 17, 1875, when African-American jockey Oliver Lewis rode Aristides to victory in the first Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, America’s love of horse racing began. Including Lewis, fourteen of the fifteen jockeys in the derby were African Americans. And African-Americans won 15 of the first 28 derbies, before the Jim Crow era forced them out.
Horse racing and the equine industry as a whole has a deep and rich tradition here in Kentucky. No other place in America is as synonymous with horses than Kentucky. Most people are familiar with Louisville being the home to the “most exciting two minutes in sports” and Lexington being the “Horse Capital of the World”, but did you know that Shelbyville, KY is known as the “Saddlebred Capital of the World”?
But today, we’ll just focus on thoroughbreds.
To understand horse racing, you have to understand a bit about the athletes who race – thoroughbreds. A thoroughbred is a foal that is the product of a “live cover,” meaning a witnessed natural mating of a stallion and a mare. All thoroughbreds share the same birthday, January 1, regardless of when they were foaled. This is a practice that dates back to the 1800s to unify the horses that were racing. To help with timing, there is an official breeding season, which starts in mid-February and runs through early June in the Northern hemisphere. The gestation period of a horse is roughly 11 months, and all thoroughbred horses in the northern hemisphere turn another year older January 1st regardless of their actual birth date. So as you can see, it is very important to get the timing right, because a thoroughbred foal born on December 29, would be considered 1 year old just three days later.
Now, about horse racing and the injuries.
The majority of injuries in racehorses are limb injuries sustained from their heavy weight, somewhere between 900 to 1200 pounds, running around the track at high speeds. Horses have four legs, so each leg carries around 250 pounds. If a horse sustains an injury to a limb, or God forbid breaks a limb, it is a daunting task to be able to repair that limb to be able to sustain that weight load again. Horses are meant to move, so unlike a human, you cannot put them on bedrest, because if a horse lays down too long, their blood flow diminishes and they can develop infections, ulcers and die. Because of these factors, horses are euthanized. And just like other sports, horses can be subject to illegal doping and medications that can cause long-term issues and jeopardize the integrity of the sport.
Unlike most major sports, like the NBA, NFL and MLB, there is no unifying body for the horse racing industry. Regulations in Kentucky are not the same as regulations in California, New York or Maryland. There is a racetrack coalition that was formed three years ago to start addressing these issues, but again there is still no single entity to regulate the sport.
Despite all of the news around horse deaths at Churchill Downs this past week, the majority of thoroughbreds go on to have successful and healthy careers, and then are able to retire and live amazing lives. Some are retrained for other horse-related careers, some will stand stud at a thoroughbred farm where you can visit them and their foals, and then others will go to a retirement farm like Old Friends in Georgetown, KY.
This is a very deep and complicated subject, and I am by no means a veterinarian nor do I work in the equine industry, so there are other areas around this subject that I cannot fully speak on. But, if you really want to learn more about horses, I encourage you to go visit a horse farm to gain a better understanding of the love and care these horses receive from the farms and their staff on a daily basis rather than fall victim to uneducated opinion writers. I am not here to persuade you to go one way or the other, but I am here to share some insight and resources. So, if you want to learn more about horses, book a horse farm tour or a racetrack tour – you won’t be disappointed.