The roar of hooves and the crackle of silks on a racetrack can seem like a magical ritual, but for many horses, it’s anything but. The racing industry claims that horses “love to compete,” but it’s a mischaracterization that overlooks the cruelty of the sport and its effect on the health and wellbeing of the animals involved. In a natural setting, horses understand self-preservation, which means that they stop running and rest if they’re injured. In a race, they’re pushed past their limits, often with humans perched on their backs and urging them forward with a whip. As a result, many horses will bleed from their lungs, a condition known as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage.

A horse race is a contest of speed between horses that are either ridden by jockeys or pulled by drivers in sulkies. The fastest horse wins the race and receives a prize, which may range from hundreds of dollars to millions of dollars for the winners of the most prestigious races. In the United States, the most popular racing event is the Kentucky Derby, which pays out $10 million in winnings to the top three finishers. The most famous races in other countries include the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and Dubai World Cup in the UAE, Caulfield and Sydney Cups in Australia, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in England, and Durban July in South Africa.

While the sport of horse racing once enjoyed broad popularity, it’s been losing fans and revenues for years. The industry acknowledges that it needs to improve. Its revenue, number of races, and entries are all down, while the number of horses in training is growing. The Jockey Club, the industry’s trade association, blames declining interest in betting on rising competition from online gambling and a perception that the sport has lost its appeal.

To improve its image, the industry is making changes. It’s expanding its drug testing and putting more emphasis on animal welfare. But animal advocates say these improvements are not enough. They want to see an end to abusive training practices, excessive use of drugs and other performance-enhancing substances, and the forced transport of American horses to slaughter.

PETA’s investigation of training and racing at Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course, where the video that prompted this article was shot, offers some insight into what critics have long called the dark side of horse racing. The footage shows horses being whipped to drive them into close-quarters racing. It also reveals that the trainers, Scott Blasi and Steve Asmussen, are both accused of using illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

Several studies have shown that when journalists focus on political horse races instead of policy issues, voters, candidates and the news media suffer. These studies have been augmented by recent research on probabilistic forecasting, which allows reporters to more accurately predict how a race will turn out.

The Horse Race Is Not a Magical Ritual