Thoroughbred Racing

As a young woman, I loved horse racing.  Watching the magnificent horses thunder around the track gave me goose bumps.  I remember cheering for Secretariat as he finished the final leg of the Triple Crown.  He was poetry in motion.  I hoped to become a large animal veterinarian and someday work with race horses.  All that changed in the summer of 1985 when I went to work on a track. 

Between freshman and sophomore year of veterinary school, I worked in the drug testing barn at Canterbury Downs Racetrack in Shakopee Minnesota.  Although the job was less than glamorous (I caught urine with a cup attached to a stick), it taught me more about the horse racing industry than I ever imagined.  I discovered that the industry allows horses to run with performance enhancing drugs in their bodies – drugs that would disqualify a human athlete from competition.  I learned that pre-race health inspections were often a mere formality.  I saw the veterinarian  representing the racing commission certify horses standing in garbage cans full of ice as “racing sound”.  But perhaps the most disgusting event I witnessed was the breakdown of a black mare on the track.  This mare was the most successful horse in her stable, winning almost every time she ran.  I noticed her limping after a race.  She sustained a minor injury that would heal with rest.  It was sad to learn that she would not receive this much needed rest.  Her stable was in financial trouble.  Instead of allowing her to recuperate, the trainer raced her as frequently as the rules permitted.  She was euthanized a few races later after breaking her leg.  Quite often, the death of a race horse results in the stable receiving a large payment from the insurance company. 

To be fair, I did observe a handful of ethical trainers who cared about their horses.  These men and women made the welfare of the horse their top priority.  The problem is that too frequently the ethical people are squeezed out of the business.  The playing field is not level when some athletes are on performance-enhancing drugs.   

I recommend the following changes be instituted nationally.  For those unfamiliar with the Thoroughbred Racing Industry, each state is currently allowed to make up their own rules:

1)  Ban all drugs from horse racing, training and sales.  This includes:   

  • Furosemide (Lasix is the common trade name.)  Lasix is used to treat a condition called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage.  The stress of racing causes tiny blood vessels in the lungs to rupture in some horses.  The mixture of blood and bronchiolar secretions interferes with respiration causing the horse to slow down.  “Bleeders” are given a dose of this powerful diuretic to decrease blood pressure which in turn, decreases bleeding.  Horses raced on furosemide lose several pounds prior to racing which may give them a further advantage.
  • Phenylbutazone:  This non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug is often called “Bute”.  It is a potent pain reliever that allows trainers to race horses with physical injuries.  I watched minor problems turn into career-ending injuries when unscrupulous trainers used it to mask pain.  Like other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, Bute interferes with platelet function.  This may be a factor in exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage.
  • Steroids:  Winstrol, Equipose, Durabolin and testosterone are the four legal steroids of horse racing.  Steroids enhance performance by artificially increasing muscle mass making the horse more powerful and faster.  Since these drugs are banned in human competition why are they allowed in horse racing?   

2)  Require all horses to be four years of age or older.

3)  The veterinarian conducting pre-race soundness exams must be independent from the racing commission.  As it stands, this position generally reports to the racing commission.  A veterinarian who disqualifies too many horses might jeopardize their employment.    

4)  Set high, common sense standards that each horse must meet in order to race.  The first standard should be that lameness of any severity is an automatic disqualification.  There should also be a ban on ice therapy for 2 hours prior to the veterinary inspection.

5)  The use of whips during competition should be banned.  

6)  Ban all traction devices on horse shoes.

The Jockey Club set-up the Thoroughbred Safety Committee to investigate problems which effect the welfare and safety of equine and human athletes involved in horse racing.  In their report dated June 17, 2008, the committee called for the elimination of steroids and traction devices on front horse shoes.  Unfortunately, they only recommended changes to the rules for whip usage.  To read more about the committee and their recommendations check out the media center news releases at

Tragic events in recent years have justifiably tarnished horse racing.  Let us hope the bright light of greater scrutiny brings about a safer and more humane industry.  An industry which places the welfare of the horses first.


Published by kristennelsondvm

Dr. Kristen Nelson grew up on a farm in Watertown, Minn., where she developed a deep love for animals of all kinds. She received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine. Kris then completed a small-animal internship at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in New York City. In addition to writing and speaking, she cares for small and exotic animals in Scottsdale, Az. Dr. Nelson is widely quoted in the media. Her credits include Ladies’ Home Journal, USA TODAY, the Los Angeles Times and numerous radio and television interviews. Dr. Nelson has written two books, Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life and Coated With Fur: A Blind Cat’s Love. Kris and her husband Steve share their home with rescued cats, birds and a dog.