Racing to Die: Drugs and Inbreeding in Thoroughbred Racing



I am a Kentuckian who loves horse racing, who loves the Kentucky Derby , who loves the whole Triple Crown experience. I love horses, all horses but particularly thoroughbreds. I don’t love what has happened to thoroughbred horses in the name of racing and making money.

In the 2015 Kentucky Derby, a horse named Eight Belles broke down and had to be euthanized after the race. After the 2015 Derby, there was a Congressional Hearing in the House of Representatives by the Subcommittee on the State of the Thoroughbred Racing Industry and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred Horse due to Eight Belle’s breakdown. They specifically addressed drugs and inbreeding in the racing industry.  Breakdowns on the track and during or after a race are becoming increasingly common. This subcommitte investigated the Eight Belle’s situation and determined she was inbred to the point that there was no way she could possibly have been a sound horse. Her four times great-grandfather on her sire’s side was her three times great-grandfather on her dam’s side. That particular line of horse was known for their weak ankles even though they were superb race horses. What happened to Eight Belle’s to cause her breakdown? A catastrophic ankle injury. There are thousands of race horses out there with the same blood line as Eight Belles or very similar.

Inbreeding is not the only problem. Performance-enhancing drugs is the other leg of this issue. Race horses bleed from their lungs and suffer inflammation and pain. Are they rested or retired? No. They are raced on drugs. Lasix for the bleeding in the lungs.   Anti-inflammatory drugs and pain medications for the other problems. Bottom line? Even if a race horse is hurting, he or she is out there on that track running because they are shot up with drugs and do not feel the pain. It’s called doping.

Different race tracks have different rules regarding drugging horses. Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is run, follows Kentucky rules, and Kentucky is known as the most lenient state. Horses entered in the Derby can be doped with Lasix for bleeding in the lungs, corticosteroids for pain and inflammation, and phenylbutazone for inflammation. This writer’s opinion is that these drugs should not be allowed to be used during a race on these horses. Even more, horses that require the use of these drugs should not ever be bred as that is only exponentially extending the problem to future generations. The main issue? Virtually all race horses are doped with these drugs in this day and time. In Europe, however, horses run clean, breakdown less, and are generally healthier.

Back to the inbreeding issue. It isn’t simple. Inbreeding and linebreeding are used in order to reproduce desirable characteristics in horses, but it also reproduces undesirable characteristics such as in the case of Eight Belles. To this writer, there seems to be little solution other than to outcross. Outcrossing is breeding unrelated horses through four generations. It is risky and breeders certainly have to do a great deal of research and homework. Outcrossing can bring new blood into a line and make it stronger but it takes work and study on the part of the breeder.

If something isn’t done, and fast, about the drug and inbreeding issues, horse racing as we know it is going to die. Average starts per horse dropped from 1975 to 2007 by 62%. Around 10 starts in 1975 to a little over 6 starts in 2007. Compare that to the starts by the great horse Citation. He was born in 1945 from a primarily outcrossed European breeding and started 45 times with 32 victories. He is considered perhaps third on the list of the greatest race horses that ever lived, behind Man ‘O War and Secretariat.

Could most thoroughbred race horses today run 45 races? I will let you draw your own conclusions. I hope for a National organization to regulate horse racing and the treatment of race horses that standardizes the laws across all 50 states.

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