Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Gladiators on Four Legs

March 26th, 2010 · 7 Comments

Though this seems obvious when you really think about it, there’s nothing like an objective report to drive the harsh reality home: modern horse racing makes NASCAR seem like knitting:

Based upon a year’s worth of data beginning November 1, 2008, from 378,864 total starts in Thoroughbred flat races at 73 racetracks participating in the Equine Injury Database, 2.04 fatal injuries were recorded per 1,000 starts.

Um, wow. Let’s put that in perspective, shall we? If we assume that the average thoroughbred race is 1.5 miles—the same distance as the Kentucky Derby—and that a dozen horses participate in each race, that translates into a death rate of approximately one per 9,000 miles run. The mortality rate for sled dogs in competitive rates such as the Iditarod, by contrast, has been estimated at one per 1.3 million miles traveled.

So, pretty gruesome statistics, and something that the horse-racing industry will have to address—either through the increased use of synthetic tracks, which appear to cause fewer leg breaks, or tighter restrictions on drugs.

That said, we admit that the title of this post is a wee bit hyperbolic. The mortality rate for Roman gladiators? Nineteen deaths per 100 bouts. Take that, BASE jumping.

(Image via this excellent Flickr stream)


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7 Comments so far ↓

  • tsg

    FWIW, the Derby and other Triple Crown races are significantly longer than the average thoroughbred race. Most thoroughbred races are roughly in the range of 5 furlongs to 1 1/8 miles (a furlong = 1/8 of a mile). So that’d translate to an even higher fatality/mile ratio.

    Also, you’re right about the drugs being dangerous. Fatal injuries are FAR less common in Europe where they have much tighter restrictions of drug use, most importantly a ban on pain-killers on race days. We have a lot of unsound horses racing here because they’re too doped up to feel the pain.

    This problem is exacerbated by the fact that American horses have been bred for a long time now to race on drugs, fundamentally altering the gene pool and allowing for unsound characteristics to become widespread.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @tsg: Thanks for the insight. A salient reminder that pain exists for a very good reason–to deter living beings from causing themselves grave harm.

  • Margery Glickman

    For the dogs, the Iditarod is a bottomless pit of suffering. Six dogs died in the 2009 Iditarod, including two dogs on Dr. Lou Packer’s team who froze to death in the brutally cold winds. What happens to the dogs during the race includes death, paralysis, frostbite (where it hurts the most!), bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons and sprains. Many dogs become sick and injured in the race or are too exhausted to run. At least 142 dogs have died in the Iditarod.

    During training runs, Iditarod dogs have been killed by moose, snowmachines, and various motor vehicles, including a semi tractor and an ATV. They have died from drowning, heart attacks and being strangled in harnesses. Dogs have also been injured while training. They have been gashed, quilled by porcupines, bitten in dog fights, and had broken bones, and torn muscles and tendons. Most dog deaths and injuries during training aren’t even reported.

    Iditarod dog kennels are puppy mills. Mushers breed large numbers of dogs and routinely kill unwanted ones, including puppies. Many dogs who are permanently disabled in the Iditarod, or who are unwanted for any reason, including those who have outlived their usefulness, are killed with a shot to the head, dragged, drowned or clubbed to death. “Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don’t pull are dragged to death in harnesses……” wrote former Iditarod dog handler Mike Cranford in an article for Alaska’s Bush Blade Newspaper.

    Dog beatings and whippings are common. During the 2007 Iditarod, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, “Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective…A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective.” “It is a common training device in use among dog mushers…”

    Jon Saraceno wrote in his March 3, 2000 column in USA Today, “He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens.. Or dragging them to their death.”

    During the race, veterinarians do not give the dogs physical exams at every checkpoint. Mushers speed through many checkpoints, so the dogs get the briefest visual checks, if that. Instead of pulling sick dogs from the race, veterinarians frequently give them massive doses of antibiotics to keep them running. The Iditarod’s chief veterinarian, Stu Nelson, is an employee of the Iditarod Trail Committee. They are the ones who sign his paycheck. So, do you expect that he’s going to say anything negative about the Iditarod?

    The Iditarod, with all the evils associated with it, has become a synonym for exploitation. The race imposes torture no dog should be forced to endure.

    Margery Glickman
    Sled Dog Action Coalition, website: helpsleddogs.org

  • Captured Shadow

    I couldn’t help thinking of bullfights, but that is more performance art than sport.

    I often wondered why the horse folks adopted the term “destroyed” for ending the life of a horse that was too badly injured. Maybe they have a better euphemism now, but destroyed always sounded even worse than killed to me.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: Good point. Dogs get “put to sleep” (or, even more euphemistically, “sent to live in the country”), but horses get destroyed. Brutal.

    Also, a question I’ll ask out of ignorance: Is it really impossible to keep a race horse alive after it’s broken a leg? Or just very expensive? Honestly, I don’t know the answer here–lil’ help?

  • tsg

    @Brendan: Not all leg breaks are automatic death sentences, it depends on the severity of the injury, the age and temperament of the animal. Healing a broken leg, however, is no small task nor is it a sure thing. Often it’s considered more humane to put the horse down rather than put it through the pain of going through a by no means certain recovery process, which can last many months.

    Laminitis is a painful disease that often occurs in the healthy legs of the horse from bearing the additional weight that the injured one cannot bear. Nasty infections are also common. And pain management is very difficult, because if you make the animal too comfortable with drugs, it is likely to reinjure itself.

    And yes, cost is a big factor as well.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @tsg: Interesting, thx–esp. about the animal reinjuring itself as a result of pain meds.