Making a Killing Out of Horses

The New York Times on drugs, fatalities and casinos in US racing. A hard but necessary read.

Melodeeman, a 10-year-old thoroughbred, had earned a rest.

He raced gallantly for six owners. He set a track record at Aqueduct for the fastest five and a half furlongs and earned more than $250,000 in his career. He raced even after a broken leg was put back together with three stainless-steel screws.

But by the evening of Jan. 21, 2010, Melodeeman had hit the bottom of the racing world. As the temperature hovered near freezing at Penn National, he prepared to compete among the lowest quality thoroughbreds.

In a different time, Melodeeman might have skipped this race, or retired altogether. Not now. Not here. Profits from the track’s casino had fattened the purse to $18,000, far more than the $4,000 for which each horse could be purchased, or claimed — precisely the kind of cost disparity that prominent veterinarians had warned against.

Eager to get in on the action, three people filed claims to buy three horses in the race.

No one tried to buy Melodeeman.

According to one exercise rider who saw the horse well before the race, Melodeeman was clearly lame. But Melodeeman raced anyhow that evening.

Turning for home, his front legs buckled, sending his jockey, Angel Quinones, flying. Melodeeman had snapped his right cannon bone and was euthanized at the track, almost four years to the day after he set his Aqueduct record.

State regulators were suspicious. Other horses belonging to the same owner, Michael Gill, had been breaking down in large numbers, and jockeys were complaining.

A subsequent necropsy revealed that Melodeeman not only had degenerative joint disease in the lower part of his two front legs, but that his fatal fracture occurred next to the earlier break mended with three screws. The examiners were concerned enough to have snapped a color photograph of the screws.

A prohibited sedative, fluphenazine, was also found in Melodeeman’s brain, according to records obtained by The Times. Fluphenazine can calm a horse that becomes agitated because of discomfort or injury, according to two veterinarians.

Considerably more coverage to be found here.

UPDATE: further to the NYT piece, here’s USA Today reporting that Kentucky, the very home of US horse racing, may have to resort to on-track casinos if it’s to maintain its racing schedules. And NPR on the NYT reporters’ methods.

5 thoughts on “Making a Killing Out of Horses

  1. It ought to be quite easy to stop all this, but the racing authorities are funded by gambling so have little incentive. Maybe the government need to intervene, but they’re part-funded by gambling, so have little incentive. Jockeys? They’d lose money, or their jobs. Vets? Ditto. Banning anti-inflammatories, and instituting a rigorous program of testing and penalties, isn’t cheap. Sadly it seems horses are.

  2. I expect that if no one takes action the result will be a big popular campaign to get rid of horse racing in the US. Pariah status. There’s a huge amount of anti-cruelty legisaltion flying around in the US in relation to the slaughter industry and what happens to wild horses, and I’m sure the same will threaten the racing biz if they don’t clean up their act.

  3. I so wish it would. I remember as a horse-crazed teenager writing a persuasive essay on why we must stop drugging horses and causing them to break down, an essay that meant zero to my fellow middle-school students…and this was back in the mid-70s, and nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed in the industry, in fact it’s gotten worse. It’s absolutely terrible.

  4. Karen just sent me this link, which is to the point: http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2012/05/kentucky_derby_2012_is_it_time_to_ban_horse_racing_.single.html

    “after Eight Belles died, a Gallup poll found that 38 percent of Americans supported banning animal racing.”

    “Horse racing’s fatality rate has increased 30 percent or 40 percent over the last 20 years, according to Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board. “Nobody knows” exactly why, Arthur says, but he cites a combination of track surfaces, commercial breeding, changes in training regimens, and a lax attitude toward medication as likely causes. “

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