One of the most pressing issues facing the sports world today is the question of where the line can be drawn between intense training and actual abuse. This is particularly true of horse racing, which depends upon animals who cannot give their consent or input, and thus rely on their owners and trainers to look out for their well-being. For example, just as steroid use has become an increasing problem in the world of professional sports, so too has the horse racing world been forced to deal with steroid use, except in the latter case, the horses themselves can be subjected to drug abuse by any of the multiple people responsible for their care. As a result of steroids and other health and safety issues, the horse racing industry has taken to regulating itself, with mixed results (Smeltz 215). A more balanced approach that takes the numerous different stakeholders into account is needed, because regulating the health and safety of horses and riders is not only ethical, but necessary for the future survival of the sport.
In order to determine what is and is not acceptable in regards to the care and training of racing horses, one must first examine the ethical, historical, and economical issues surrounding the sport from an objective perspective, because only then will it be possible to strike a balance between the safety and rights of the horse and the inherent need for those horses to perform better and better, a need that can encourage dangerous methods such as the use of steroids and other controlled substances. As will be seen, a combination of conflicting incentives and short-term thinking has kept a wide variety of organizations from ever effectively regulating the industry. Recognizing the economic incentives that influence the regulation of horse racing as well as the historical issues that have prevented regulation will make it possible to move towards a more balanced approach that bans the most destructive practices while allowing for innovation and growth (Smeltz 221).
Because this study is concerned not with determining the ethics of horse racing as such, but rather the ethical standards horse racing should apply as an institution, it is not necessary to consider arguments regarding the possibility that any form of animal racing is unethical, due to the fact that the animals themselves cannot consent to the terms of their participation. However, it is necessary to point out that these arguments exist, if only to better clarify the scope of this project. This study does not question whether or not horse racing should exist; rather, after conceding that it does, in fact, exist, this study attempts to determine some minimum standard of ethics and regulation that horse racing might apply so as to ensure the fairness of the competition and the safety of the animals. This is particularly important in light of the fact that the current regulation regime has not succeeded in many key areas, because the corporate need for greater achievements and higher profits has frequently resulted in policies antithetical to regulation or inspection (Smeltz 217).
Though for many horse racing refers to the particular form that has emerged over the course of the last two centuries, horse racing as a general sport can be traced all the way back to the earliest Olympic games, when competitors raced chariots against each other (Smeltz 216). It did not evolve into the sport it is today until the nineteenth century, when it rose to such prominence in the United States that Congress frequently went into recess so that members could go to the races (Smeltz 216). As the sport has evolved, so too have the safety and training standards, because more popularity means more public scrutiny.
This public scrutiny includes an increased focus on the treatment of the horses themselves, to the point that the industry itself recognized as early as 1894 that it needed some kind of regulatory regime in order to ensure the continued competitiveness of the sport while protecting the horses' health (Smeltz 217). 1894 saw the founding of the Jockey Club, which was designed to control the breeding of horses and give the sport some public legitimacy. However, the Jockey Club has never actually regulated the industry, because over time it was transformed from a semi-official regulatory organization into a kind of umbrella group that includes the most powerful horse owners and merely supports the efforts of other organizations (Smeltz 217). Although it pays lip service to the notion of regulation and inspection, the Jockey Club has since ceased to be a particularly relevant member of the discussion.
Where the Jockey Club has not produced effective self-regulation seemingly due to a lack of will on the parts of its members, other efforts to institute industry-wide regulatory regimes has faltered due to a diversity of positions and interests. For example, since 1997 the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has attempted to institute universal regulations regarding the medication and training of horses, but its mission is framed in the context of a trade organization whose ultimate goal is to engage and increase its fan-base (Smeltz 217). As a result, it has not been able to find wide support for its efforts, because it is preemptively prevented from negotiating standards that might substantially increase costs for the industry as a whole. Instead, the best it can do encourage minor, incremental changes.
However, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association was at least initially successful in setting up the Safety Alliance, "a code of standards to ensure that horse, riders, and other industry participants were well cared for," but even then only in response to the dramatic on-track injuries and subsequent death of two horses. Furthermore, though the Alliance began with an auspicious start, economic concerns and structural deficiencies led to the decline of the Safety Alliance as a useful regulator (Smeltz 217). Among other things, the Safety Alliance would have regulated the medications and drugs given horses, but racetrack owners essentially hobbled the Alliance by refusing to pay membership dues while maintaining their accreditation, such that the organization is simply too poor to be a substantive regulator of the industry (Smeltz 217). As will be seen later on, financial incentives play a crucial role in keeping effective regulation from developing.
The Association of Racing Commissioners International has attempted to fill the regulatory void left by the failure of the Jockey Club, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, and the Safety Alliance, and of the industry self-regulation efforts, it has been the most successful. Even then, however, it includes a number of government appointees, so it cannot be truly considered industry self-regulation. At any rate, the Association of Racing Commissioners has made a number of important suggestions regarding the safety and treatment of racing horses, and unlike previous organizations, has the institutional clout and organizational skill to make these suggestions a reality (Smeltz 218). Perhaps the most important of the regulations it has instituted is a ban on certain medications being given to horses on or near the day of a race, as well as investigations into the dangers of steroid use (Smeltz 218).
Though racing horses are given a wide variety of medications as part of their training and maintenance, the most pernicious is the use of steroids, partially because steroids are so widely available, and can be administered relatively easily (Dugan 10, Buti & Fridman 174). In much the same way that humans take steroids in order to increase their muscle mass and strength, horses can be given steroids in order to increase their appetite as well as more masculine personality traits (Dugan 10). While this increases the horse's ability to perform in races by increasing its strength, endurance, and psychological drive, it can also lead to serious industry and personality defects (Dugan 10, Turner, McCrory, & Halley 404). The increased performance that comes with steroid use carries a price, because the steroids work by disrupting the body's natural flow of hormones and chemicals, increasing physical ability but changing mood and personality.
For example, because steroids change an animal's cognition and personality alongside its physical attributes, horses can act more erratically in between races, greatly increasing the threat to both themselves and their riders (Turner et.al. 404.). A horse may run well, but become upset or irritated when surrounded by people or other horses. Horses can over half a ton and are able to move as fast a motor vehicle, so the combination of sheer power and destabilizing drugs can greatly magnify the likelihood of an injury (Turner et.al. 404, Smeltz 217). Furthermore, these injuries are disproportionately fatal, because in a single race a horse can injure its legs, ankles, or joints so badly that it must be euthanized even before it is taken off the track (Smeltz 217). With this in mind, it should be obvious that the dangerous side effects of steroid use far outweigh whatever performance benefit they might offer.
Despite the danger of steroid use to both the horses and their riders, the horse…