Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Ethics of Horse Racing and the Death of Eight Belles

Here is a reliable sign that the ethical thinking about a subject is seriously out of kilter: when apologists for ethically dubious conduct cite as a justification for that conduct exactly what is troubling about it. This sign was on brilliant display during the recent Preakness. The Washington Post quizzed racing enthusiasts on hand regarding the protests of PETA and other activists now arguing that horse racing is barbaric, a controversy stoked by the horrible finish-line death of the filly Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby. What answers did the fans give?

"It’s a real tragedy, but it happens all the time," said Mike Hager of Greensboro, N.C., who was at his 30th Preakness.

"It’s part of racing," said Janet Murray, a horse owner. "Very unfortunate, very sad, but it’s part of the race."

"That [Eight Belles’ injury and death] happened in a famous race, but this happens regularly," said John Coffey of Brooklyn, a former horse owner.

Imagine this argument used in other contexts.

“Don’t we have to do something about airline safety?”   
“Nah, people get killed in crashes all the time!”

“Isn’t it time we get more aggressive about preventing child neglect?” 
“Are you kidding? Kids get killed from neglect every day!”

“The level of care at nursing homes is a scandal!”                                                     
“That’s silly. Lots of old people get terrible treatment in those homes. It’s typical!”

It is obvious what’s going on here: the Preakness apologists are missing the point. They were so focused on their love of horse racing that they thought the controversy concerned one high-profile equine break-down on national television. But it does not. The issue is that the sad fate of Eight Belles occurs too often for horse racing to be considered a humane or ethical sport. Yes-“it’s part of racing.” And that’s the problem.

In her excellent series of articles following the Derby, sports columnist Sally Jenkins pointed out that Eight Belles wasn’t even the only horse hurt that day: nine other racehorses at tracks around the country had to be carried away from their races in ambulances on Derby Day. American horses average 1.5 career-ending injuries for every 1000 races, or about two a day, a far higher rate than abroad. Is this ethically acceptable?

Well, it isn’t dog-fighting. In that “sport,” life-threatening injuries to the animals are the point of the contest. Fans don’t look away from a bleeding animal in horror, as they did at Churchill Downs; they cheer. Causing unreasoning, unconsenting animals to inflict vicious wounds on each other for entertainment represents a whole different level of depravity and cruelty that horse racing lacks.


Horse racing exploits and endangers animals for human entertainment. The injury and fatality rate is unacceptably high. Unsuccessful horses with no breeding value are often destroyed. And the activity supports gambling on a wide scale, along with all the financial and personal devastation that come with gambling. These are not minor ethical problems, and racing horses is not an essential human activity.

What balances all these negatives on the ethical scale? The activity supports the breeding and racing industry and its employees. It is a sport with a long tradition. It can be exciting and beautiful, and yes, the horses love to run. Is that enough?

It can only be enough if one discounts the welfare and fate of the horses, regarding them as just a necessary and disposable resource. Because they get hurt, fall down, and die. People race Jack Russell Terriers too, but the dogs don’t get hurt, they enjoy the races, and people don’t bet on them. Only the most fanatic PETA zealot would find terrier races unethical. But when we focus on the horses—never mind that they are “loved” by their breeders, jockeys and trainers—we cannot ignore the fact that the sport puts them in peril.

Overland racing was banned because of its toll on horses. Fox hunting—tradition, great paintings, Mame and all—finally met the same fate. No, horse racing isn’t dog-fighting, but ethically, the scale is still weighted against it. We should start by banning drugs and making the courses safer, but eventually, horse racing will simply have to stop.

Not because Eight Belles died horribly at the Kentucky Derby, but because when the death of animals is part of a sport, it is a sport an ethical society shouldn’t tolerate.


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