Last year while racing at California’s Bay Meadows track, 4-year-old gelding Imperial Eyes took a wrong step and broke down in the deep stretch. Jockey Russell Baze, the winningest jockey in thoroughbred racing history, whipped the stricken horse to a second-place finish. Imperial Eyes had suffered a broken leg and was euthanized. Baze was assessed a small fine and suspended from racing for two weeks.
Even people who only watch an occasional horse race like the recent Kentucky Derby, where second-place winner Eight Belles also suffered a horrific breakdown, see that whips are used frequently and with great force. But not only is whipping horses to get another inch per stride cruel—it can also cost horses their lives.
It’s time for the horseracing industry to ban whips altogether. This has already been proposed in the U.K., where whipping has been regulated for years. Member of Parliament Mike Hancock has called upon the British Horseracing Authority to ban whipping following an investigation by the News of the World that uncovered nearly 700 whip offenses on British racecourses in 2007. Some U.K. jockeys have spoken out in support of a ban.
In the U.S., excessive whipping is rarely even penalized.
Monty Roberts, known as the “horse whisperer” and bestselling author of the book The Man Who Listens to Horses, said of racing: “A whip has no place in horsemanship at all. It’s medieval for horses.” Renowned Kentucky horse veterinarian Dr. Alex Harthill said simply: “Sure, it hurts a horse.”
Whipping is an egregiously cruel practice in an industry fraught with cruelty. Thoroughbreds are accidents waiting to happen. While some tracks have switched to synthetic surfaces, which are easier on horses’ legs, they’re still forced to run while young and still growing. Injuries are often masked with drugs. Every year, countless horses don’t make it off the track alive.
The death of Derby winner Barbaro made headlines, but numerous horses suffer similar fates. Racer George Washington was euthanized after breaking his leg while running the Preakness last year. Saint Liam, the 2005 “Horse of the Year,” was euthanized after injuring his hind leg.
Most of these horses’ broken legs and battered bodies never make the news—and they do not get expensive treatment and long-term therapy. Horse Illustrated magazine reported that 90 percent of all horses end up slaughtered—not euthanized, but killed and turned into food overseas.
While the controversial issues surrounding horse racing should prompt us to eliminate it altogether, at the very least whipping should be banned. It’s not going to solve all of the problems with racing, but it’s a start, and it may prevent more horses from ending up draped in a shroud instead of a wreath of roses.
Jennifer O’Connor is an animals in entertainment campaign writer with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.