The Ethics of a Horse Race

A horse race has been around a long time. While the sport retains many of its traditions, it has also embraced some of the technological advances that have swept through most industries, sectors and sports in recent years. These innovations, ranging from thermal imaging cameras to MRI scanners and 3D printing technologies have improved the safety of horses on and off the track as well as enabling veterinarians to detect and treat minor or major health issues that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Despite these advances, it remains a sport that routinely sees horses die from broken legs or catastrophic cardiac episodes while in the throes of performance. The deaths of Eight Belles and Medina Spirit, two champions born just a decade apart, sparked a reckoning that pushed for reforms in the industry. Those reforms have yet to fully take hold, and this year, as thousands of fans descend on Santa Anita for the Derby, there is a sense that the sport’s ethics are once again under scrutiny.

One of the most fundamental aspects of a horse race is the pedigree, or family tree, that allows a particular animal to participate in the sport. In most flat races (not steeplechases) the horse’s sire and dam must be purebred individuals of whatever breed the race is, for example, a Thoroughbred in a flat race or a Standardbred in a harness race. Whether or not the pedigree is legitimate is determined by an organization called The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities or IFHA, which publishes a world rankings system that includes a rating for each horse based on its performance over elite races held in different countries.

The rankings, referred to as the World Rankings, are calculated by racing officials and handicappers from all over the world. The ratings are published annually and they are based on a series of criteria including the achievements of the horses, their competition, the surface they’re running on (turf or dirt) and fillies & mares category.

While the rankings are a good way to determine which horse is the best, it’s still difficult to define what makes a great racer. Some say it’s a horse’s ability to reach its peak at the moment just before breaking down, and the greatest horses have demonstrated such capacity: Secretariat’s 31-length destruction of the 1973 Belmont Stakes, Seabiscuit’s 1964 win in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and Arkle’s 1964 annihilation of an international field in the 1965 Gold Cup are all examples of races that have reached their climax.

The donations from gamblers and industry folks are essential for the safety of horses, but those same dollars do not cancel out the continuing, often deadly, exploitation of younger runners who will depend on these same donors to survive. If the sport hopes to regain its reputation as an ethical industry, it must address how to create an adequately funded, industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for every horse that leaves a racetrack.