From Derby to dinner table

Racing fans and foodies share the problem of horse doping

By Heather Kapplow

Second-place finisher Eight Belles in pack during the Kentucky Derby in 2008. (Reuters)

Next week, while you’re out shopping for bourbon for your Kentucky Derby party (to improve your performance as a derby fan, of course!) those involved in the event will be struggling to adapt as quickly as possible to new horse doping regulations that Congress will be reviewing on Monday April 30.

Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Representative Ed Whitfield (R-KY) are leading the pack in an effort to increase federal regulation of the U.S.’s $40 billion racing industry, which they say is suffering from a “doping epidemic.”

“Often drugged up with painkillers and performance-enhancing substances, race horses are pushed beyond their limits, leading to regular breakdowns with potentially severe or fatal consequences for both the horses and their riders,” Udall and Whitfield said in a joint statement. Udall claims that 24 horses per week die at American racetracks. The New York Times dug into stats for three years and reports a “5.2 per 1,000 starts rate of injury to horses,” not to mention riders, during that time period.

Anti-doping legislation abroad

Ireland and Britain both recently adopted anti-doping laws and, according to the Daily Star of Lebanon, two of Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranked jockeys are facing doping-related bans that could effect their 2012 Olympic prospects. Princess Haya, wife of the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, is president of the Swiss-based Federation Equestre Internationale, which will be deciding whether to uphold its strict anti-doping regulations in the Saudi case,  so many in the region are watching the outcome closely. (NB as our reader Clare below points out, the “jockeys” referred to in this Saudi case are riders on the national team that show jump, not racing riders. See Clare’s comment below.)

In the U.S., according to Whitfield, the racing industry’s assertion of self-regulation is not cutting it. “One trainer has been sanctioned at least 64 times in nine different states for various rule violations, including numerous violations of drug rules,” Whitfield said, so the new bill asks for government enforcement of regulations against horses being raced under the influence of performance-enhancing drugs, including the imposition of a “three strikes you’re out” rule for multiple violations.

About that dinner table…

So, you’re wondering, as you break out the mint julep fixings, why did we call this article “from Derby to dinner table”?  And just whose dinner table are we talking about?  Well, horse meat is on the menu in more countries than you realize.

Belgium, France, Argentina, China, Venezuela and the Netherlands are among the top markets for horse meat but it’s also considered gourmet fare in Quebec.  And in 2011, President Obama signed a bill that lifted a 5 year ban on the slaughter and sale of horses for meat in the U.S., so animals that have been being exported for slaughter to Canada and Mexico will likely eventually be processed in Wyoming or Missouri.

Sadly, being a thoroughbred is not enough to keep a horse from going to a “kill buyer” when its racing life has run its course. Though the fate of the remains of three horses (Barbaro in 2007, Eight Belles in 2008, Alysheba in 2009) who died shortly after top performances in previous Kentucky Derby races is not known, at least two famous ex-racehorses (Ferdinand and Exceller) are said to have made their way into foreign slaughter markets.

The problem is that though some consider it delicious, meat from horses, whether racing or working breeds, can contain toxic levels of the drugs that are used to help them perform better. In an interview in New Zealand’s HorseTalk, Hilary Wood, president of the horse activist group, Front Range Equine Rescue, explains, “The slaughter of American horses for meat is a tragic and cruel end for horses and it is a grave threat to food safety.”

“Horses in our country are not raised as food animals. They are routinely treated with dozens of drugs, which the USDA knows are unsafe for human consumption.”

Definitely something to keep in mind while watching the races, as, if you’re betting on them, you could be putting your money where your mouth is going to be.


  • Clare

    To clarify a couple of points in the article. ‘Jockey’ is the word used for a professional race rider. However, the term is also used colloquially to refer to other riders, frequently in a competitive role. The Saudi ‘jockeys’ are actually competitive riders on the national team in trouble for doping their show jumping horses. The ‘new’ doping rules referred to in the article are not for horse racing (which has been tightly regulated for centuries in Britain and Ireland) but all the other equestrian sports regulated by the FEI.

    Just by way of a note, the first ever female athlete from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Dalma Rushdi Malhas, competed as a show jumper at the Youth Olympic Games in 2010.

  • mariabalinska

    Thanks Clare for the clarification – we’ve made a note in the article to point out how the word “jockey” can be used in different contexts. As for Saudi show jumper, Dalma Rushdi Malhas, we certainly will be looking into her story!