What Happens After a Horse Race?

In horse racing, a race is a contest of speed and skill in which a jockey rides a thoroughbred through a series of obstacles. Each obstacle is designed to test a horse’s stamina, balance and ability to jump. The goal is to reach the finish line first and win a prize. The sport has existed for more than four centuries, and its history is intertwined with the evolution of the United States.

Despite its popularity, horse racing is in crisis. Amid doping scandals and a lack of younger fans, the sport struggles to maintain a foothold. According to IBISWorld, the largest gambling company in North America, horse racing has lost more than half its customer base since 2000. The loss of new customers has been exacerbated by a series of safety and doping scandals that have turned many would-be fans away from the sport.

The sport’s biggest problem, though, may be its inability to address what happens after the horses leave the track. There is no industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for the thousands of thoroughbreds who no longer compete. Instead, the horses hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline. Some of them are “bailed” and offered a second chance, but they often end up in Canada or Mexico. Many die before they even arrive, and the rest find a horrible, often unimaginable end. Only a handful of independent nonprofit rescue groups and individuals network, fundraise and work tirelessly to save these former stars.

In the spring of 2019, trainer Nick Alexander lost one of his best horses at Santa Anita, a three-year-old named Satchel Paige. He was not a fan of the track’s surface. The dirt was slick, and it lacked the necessary “spring” that allows horses to run fast. “You want a surface where the flexor tendon on the back stretches and then rebounds—that’s what lets a horse go long and hard,” Alexander told me in his kitchen.

That track was not the only factor that contributed to Satchel’s death, but it was a major one. The other main issue was doping. A flurry of new medications—powerful painkillers, anti-inflammatories, growth hormones, blood doping—flooded the sport, and racing officials lacked the capacity to detect them. Penalties were weak, and trainers who were caught cheating in one jurisdiction could easily move to another.

Today, the industry has evolved to a point where it is much less dependent on a few big owners. Syndicates, which allow hundreds of people to split the ownership costs for a single horse, have become commonplace in racing. A horse’s spit box—where its saliva, urine and blood are collected for testing after races—used to be filled with the bottles of these syndicates. In recent years, a number of these syndicates have been replaced by microshares that are offered for a few hundred dollars a year. These share offerings are not without their critics, but they do bring in a steady stream of money.

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