Breeding & slaughter drive the industry
SANTA ANITA, California; SYDNEY, Australia––A year-long nightmare string of fatal racehorse breakdowns continued at Santa Anita Park through October 2019 with the deaths of horses named Emtech, Colonel, Satchel Paige, and C Q Covergirl, the 35th fatality on the Santa Anita dirt, turf, and training tracks since December 26, 2018.
But USA Today investigative reporter Josh Peter saved the worst of the nightmare for Halloween.
“Over the past decade, an average of more than 600 thoroughbreds a year have died because of racing, according to research by the USA Today Network,” wrote Peter in an October 31, 2019 exposé. “By contrast, an estimated 7,500 thoroughbreds a year are slaughtered for human consumption, according to Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
“The problem is that the entire industry is a conveyor belt for slaughter,” Equine Welfare Alliance president John Holland told Peter.
“Unauthorized sales” to slaughter in Australia
Meanwhile Down Under, “There are growing calls for a royal commission into the racing industry,” Caro Meldom-Hanna of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported, “after the ABC revealed emails proving Racing New South Wales was told more than a year ago about the unauthorized sale of thoroughbreds for slaughter at a livestock auction in Camden, New South Wales.
“In 2017,” Meldom-Hanna recalled, “Racing New South Wales introduced a rule strictly prohibiting owners, trainers and managers from either directly or indirectly sending horses to slaughterhouses and to unapproved livestock auctions.”
The Josh Peter and Caro Meldom-Hanna exposés confirmed extensive research documenting the unofficial economic partnership of the race horse breeding and horse slaughter industries.
U.S. sales to slaughter fall, but not “wastage”
Horse slaughter for human consumption has been prohibited in the U.S. since 2007 by a series of Farm Bill amendments that have prevented the USDA from inspecting horse slaughterhouses. But as Peter pointed out, that has scarcely stopped the race horse industry from routing horses for slaughter through Canada, and formerly, through Mexico.
“Effective January 2015, the European Union banned the import of horse meat from Mexico,” Peter mentioned, in part because banned veterinary drugs often used in American race horses were discovered in Mexican horse meat.
“Since then, the annual number of horses exported for slaughter to Mexico and Canada last year has dropped to 97,000,” from 152,000, Peter reported, citing Equine Welfare Alliance data.
But the decline does not appear to reflect any reduction in “wastage,” as the racing industry describes speculative overbreeding and loss of horses to training and racing injuries.
Lack of USDA inspection has not inhibited the dispatch and rendering of horses for animal consumption. Horses killed for animal consumption may be dispatched by gunshot or captive bolt gun at the race track, in the stable, or wherever else they happen to be, with no need to transport an injured or ill horse alive.
This, however, is the last resort for race horse breeders and trainers seeking to dispose of “wastage,” since renderers usually pay nothing for horse carcasses, and sometimes charge to remove them.
“Breeding industry operates on turnover”
“The thoroughbred breeding industry operates on turnover, meaning it relies on a certain number of horses leaving the track,” summarized Christa Lesté-Lasserre of The Horse of findings published in 2014 by University of Sydney animal behavior and welfare science professor Paul McGreevy.
Though McGreevy focused on the Australian racing industry, most of his findings apply equally to horse racing around the world, including in the U.S. and Britain.
Breeders “know that roughly half the foals born won’t make it to the track at all,” Lesté-Lasserre continued. “While this culture of overbreeding might work for the industry’s financial models, McGreevy said, it isn’t necessarily conducive to good equine welfare.”
Wrote McGreevy, “If we were ever to make all the horses high-performance with low risk of injury and optimal behavior, there would indeed still be too many horses, but they would be more viable.”
McGreevy, former University of Sydney colleague Ariella Hayek, and fellow Australian researchers B. Jones and D.L. Evans in August 2014 published their study “Number, causes and destinations of horses leaving the Australian Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing industries” in the Journal of the Australian Veterinary Association.
Described the abstract, “Questionnaires were sent to 1,258 selected thoroughbred and 981 standardbred trainers, with response rates of 30% and 32%, respectively. The survey investigated the role of various risk factors for wastage, including horse age, sex and number of years in training. The destination of departing horses was also examined in relation to these risk factors.”
The study by McGreevy et al was just one of many investigations of “wastage” in the horse racing industry published during the past four decades.
“Wastage,” explained Al Olivier, J.P. Nurton, and A.J. Guthrie in a 1997 paper on wastage in the South African horse racing industry, “is the term used to describe the phenomenon of the loss of racehorses from conception to adulthood due to death or injuries (i.e. they never reach a race-track), or the days lost by racehorses due to not training or being withdrawn from a race.”
An assessment of wastage in Thoroughbred racing from conception to four years of age, by British researcher L.B. Jeffcott, published in 1982, found that from 1970 to 1974 the total wastage rate in British horse racing was 73%. About 14% of the foals born were never registered, 20% were not trained to race, and 6% were trained but never raced.
Subsequent studies have confirmed this now nearly-50-year-old estimate of wastage, finding no hint that better breeding, greater concern for animal welfare, changes in track design and construction, or economic concerns have reduced it.
Nearly 40% wastage per year
Found McGreevy et al, “Total horse exit rates for the 2002-03 official race year [in Australia] were 39.7% and 38.7% for the thoroughbred and standardbred racing industries, respectively.”
Of the horses who were withdrawn from racing, McGreevy et al learned, 36.5% of the thoroughbreds and 35.2% of the standardbreds were simply considered uncompetitive. Thirty-one percent of the thoroughbreds and 27% of the standardbreds were injured. About 10% of the horses were withdrawn from racing and retired to breeding. Thoroughbreds and standardbreds had the same rate––6.4%––of being retired from racing due to inappropriate temperament or behavior.
About one horse withdrawn from racing in five was withdrawn for miscellaneous other reasons.
“About 6.3% of thoroughbreds and 16.6% of standardbreds were sent to a processing plant following their racing careers,” McGreevy et al continued.
Race horses shot dead
The wastage and volume of horses sold to slaughter after their racing careers, however short, is only a fraction of the total numbers sent to slaughter. But the slaughter of horses who are never registered or raced is seldom seen by the public. The slaughter of horses who have been raced, by contrast, has festered as a public issue in Australia since November 2012.
Run since 1861 on the first Tuesday of each November, fourteen years longer than the Kentucky Derby, the Melbourne Cup is marketed as “’The race that stops a nation.”
What stopped Australian attention most in November 2012, though, may have been undercover video posted online by the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, showing injured racehorses being shot dead at the Laverton Knackery west of Melbourne.
Animals Australia in a formal complaint sent to the Department of Primary Industries alleged “dozens of breaches of animal cruelty, hygiene, welfare and meat industry laws,” summarized Richard Willingham of the Melbourne Age.
Twice as many born as are “retired”
“The racing industry can’t stand up and say they love these horses and then the next day when they can no longer earn money at the races get a bullet in the head and be killed for dog meat,” said Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses spokesperson Ward Young.
Reported Guy Stayner of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “There are currently about 15,000 thoroughbred foals born every year” in Australia, while about 8,500 per year are retired from racing according to data collected by Ariella Hayek in 2004 for the Royal SPCA of Australia.
10,000 race horses per year slaughtered
The Hayek data indicated that about 10,000 racehorses per year were slaughtered, as of 2004, while only about 30% of the foals born were eventually raced.
Australian horse racing industry spokespersons told media in 2012 that about two-thirds of the thoroughbred foals born each year are raced. But regardless of whose figures are used, horses bred to race who fall short of racing grade or pull up lame make up a sizable percentage of the 50,000 to 70,000 horses who are sold to slaughter in Australia each year.
As in the U.S., some of the meat is exported to foreign markets for human consumption; some is processed into animal food. Though Western Australia minister for agriculture and food Terry Redman in June 2010 approved the slaughter of horses for human consumption, only one novelty meat butcher is known to supply horse meat for human consumption within Australia.
Horses worth less than their saddles
U.S. data collected in 2009 by The Unwanted Horse Coalition indicated that the average cost of euthanizing a horse and disposing of the carcass was $385. Yet the difference between this and the sums that horses fetched at pre-2007 slaughter auctions was typically less than the $600-$1,000 price of a saddle.
U.S. horses sold to slaughter in 2006 yielded an average meat value of $619, according to a report prepared for Congress by the General Accounting Office.
Subtracting from this the amounts of money going to transporters, auction yards, and slaughterhouses, people selling horses to be killed appear to have collected only about $250 per horse.
Of the $39 billion income per year realized by the U.S. horse industry, just $65 million was made through exporting horse meat in 2006––about 1.6%.
Weak betting on a lackluster Kentucky Derby field can cost the industry more in any given year than the loss of revenue from selling horses to slaughter.
The Kentucky Derby alone generates 10 times more economic activity per year than the entire horse slaughter trade has in any year since 1990.
But being able to send horses to slaughter is important to horse breeders because it permits the industry to continue high-volume speculative breeding.
The gamblers lined up at parimutuel windows to place two-dollar bets are the economic base of the horse racing industry, but the economic structure of the horse breeding industry, as a whole, more closely resembles a pyramid scheme than it resembles any other branch of agriculture.
Small fortunes are made in either breeding, showing, or racing horses chiefly by starting with large fortunes. Those who prosper are those who convince other people to make large speculative investments in breeding fees, on the gamble that the right mix of ancestry might produce a winning show horse or racer, whose breeding potential will lure other people’s speculative investments.
The prosperity of almost two-thirds of the horse industry depends mostly on attracting money earned elsewhere into breeding, keeping, and training horses for whom there is no real market demand if they are not winners.
Only big winners ever recoup more for the investors than the money put into them.
If investors in racing and show horses were obligated to keep the horses they acquire until natural death or euthanasia, as most animal advocacy organizations opposed to horse slaughter would prefer to see done in an ideal world, the horse industry would collapse.
The upkeep of speculatively bred horses who fail to win would soon siphon so much money out of the deep pockets of speculative investors that little would be left to pour into further breeding and training.
Riding horse market can take only 5%
Therefore the horse industry needs a way to unload losing horses as rapidly as they lose investment appeal. That means selling them into another use, most often as riding horses.
But the McGreevy data and earlier U.S. studies show that the riding horse market can absorb only about 5% of all the horses bred for racing.
This leaves selling “retired” race horses to slaughter as the most profitable option for most breeders and trainers.
The current U.S. horse population is 9.2 million, according to the American Horse Council Foundation, of whom only 3.6 million live at facilities recognized by the USDA as “farms,” engaged in food or fiber production.
AHCF data indicates that about 2.7 million horses are kept by people involved in showing horses; 845,000 are kept by people involved in racing.
Some horses bred for show are exhibited into their twenties, but most fail to meet conformation standards, prove difficult to train, suffer injury, or are spoiled by bad riders, and are therefore culled early. Thus the average career of a show horse appears to be five years or less. The average training and racing career of a racehorse, even if relatively successful, is less than four years.
Horses aged 3-5 more likely to be “retired” than used
Unwanted Horse Coalition data suggests that while only about one horse in six is retired from use before age 3, horses in the age range of three to five years are more likely to be retired from use, whether through donation, sale to slaughter, or euthanasia, than to be sold to other users.
Of the horses in the three-to-five-year-old bracket who are sold, more than 80% are sold for further use, but mostly not for the purpose for which they were bred.
About 3.9 million horses are used for recreational riding, but Kentucky Equine Survey data indicates that about three million of them were bred for show or racing, then turned to recreational use after failing to meet show or racing standards. The Unwanted Horse Coalition numbers tend to affirm this reading.
The Unwanted Horse Coalition found that 31% of the horses disposed of in some manner were quarter horses, chiefly bred for show and amateur competition; 12% were thoroughbreds, produced for racing; 33% were other breeds used mainly for show; and 3% were standardbreds, used for harness racing.
In other words, 79% of the horses disposed of, including those sold for further use, were speculatively bred.
In hard numbers, of about six million horses (at most) who were bred for their current use, about 3.5 million were bred to race or show: about 58%.
This coincides with the 56% of horse keepers found by the Unwanted Horse Coalition to have sold horses either through auctions or directly to slaughter.
U.S. thoroughbred breeding fell by almost a third from 2008, when about 30,000 were foaled, to 2013, when the Jockey Club registered about 21,275 foals. The foal number rose slightly, to 21,500, in 2018. Show horse breeding appears to have fallen from about 100,000 to circa 70,000 during the same years.
The combined foaling numbers, declining from about 130,000 to about 100,000, parallel the numbers of horses exported from the U.S. for slaughter, which dropped during the same years from circa 137,000 to circa 105,000.