The ugly truth of thoroughbred horse racing

Published 8:05 am Friday, May 12, 2023

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Thoroughbred horse racing in America no longer has that sweet taste of a Mint Julep. It’s criminal now. The aftertaste is repulsive.

The Kentucky Derby has a long and rich, as in dollars, history. It began in 1875 and today is a place where the monied and wannabe monied throw lavish parties to talk about their horses in the runup to the event. It is where racegoers get all gussied up to be seen. And, it’s where young and often fragile horses go to die.

Seven horses died in the span of a week leading up to the big event last weekend, and two more died the day of the event.

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“We take this very seriously and acknowledge that these troubling incidents are alarming and must be addressed,” said a Churchill Downs mouthpiece. “Incidents” is one of those words used by muckety mucks who want to make something seem less important.

Churchill Downs is the name of the track where the Kentucky Derby is run. But, it’s also the name of the business side of the track, Churchill Downs Inc., which operates 29 gambling casinos and racing properties in 13 states.

Anyone who thinks Churchill Downs is going to fix the problem of horses being killed is full of…well, full of track droppings.

The fateful equation is simple enough that even I can figure it out. Horses that win big races become extremely valuable property, so owners and trainers push them onto the track before their bones, bodies and brains are ready.

The corruption is obvious on its face, but no one needs to look further than the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil. That’s where Jason Servis will be next week when Judge Vyskocil sentences him for his role in the distribution of drugs for the racehorses he was training. Here’s what U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said:

“Servis’ conduct represents corruption at the highest levels of the racehorse industry. As a licensed trainer, Servis was bound to protect the horses under his care…(he) abdicated his responsibilities to the animals, to regulators and to the public.”

To the animals. Innocent creatures who deserve only good care.

Horse racing should be shut down while the federal government conducts a thorough investigation because it is clear the business cannot–will not–regulate itself.

That’s not just me, a horse person most of my life, talking.

Mary Adams has been saving horses most of her life. She owns and operates The Sanctuary at Red Bell Run in Polk County, where she and her team care for 150 equines. She knows the horse world–and I mean “world” literally–like the back of her hand.

“Until they acknowledge that there are many bad actors and do something to permanently ban them from the sport, as well as accept the fact that these horses are too young to meet the physical demands being made of them, this sport should be banned,” she said.

“They also need to address the rampant overbreeding and the elephant in the room, which is the fact that even though there are some really good people with some really good rescues trying their best to rehome these animals, the truth is that often they have been so crippled by the demands of this ‘sport’ that they really aren’t suitable to be anything but a pasture pet,” she added.

Mary doesn’t pull her punches. The horse racing industry could take lessons from her.


Larry McDermott is a local retired farmer/journalist. Reach him at