Horse races are a sport that pits horses against one another in a test of speed and stamina. Over the centuries, it has evolved into a spectacle involving massive fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money. But its basic concept has remained unchanged: the winner is the horse that crosses the finish line first.
Unlike other sports that have changed over time to better suit human audiences, horse racing has failed to make the best interests of its athletes the primary focus of its business model. As a result, the welfare of racehorses is in crisis and it has become increasingly obvious that unless something dramatic changes, it is unlikely that the sport can recover its tarnished image.
There are three types of people in horse racing: the crooks who dangerously drug or otherwise abuse their horses and who dare the industry to catch them; the dupes who labor under the fantasy that the sport is broadly fair and honest; and the masses of honorable souls who know the truth about the corruption and yet fail to do all they can to change it. Sadly, the latter are in the majority and it is their neglect of the welfare of racehorses that has brought about this crisis.
This past week, The Atlantic ran a story based on video footage allegedly showing two top trainers treating their horses with cruelty and inhumanity at Churchill Downs and Saratoga in New York. The piece made a huge splash and is being cited as evidence of widespread abuse within the industry. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Some proponents of horse race journalism argue that this style of coverage is necessary because voters are primarily interested in the results and who’s winning and losing in political campaigns. They claim that using familiar sports language could increase interest in politics and help keep the public informed.
In the case of horse races, this logic is flawed for several reasons. First and foremost, horse race journalism trivializes politics and reduces it to a trivial entertainment event. This form of news coverage has the unfortunate effect of outshining every other topic of substantive concern in the campaign, and it contributes to the depoliticization of our country’s democracy.
In addition, horse race journalism also takes a skewed view of the issues at stake in each campaign and often treats them as a contest between gladiators. Thrilling entertainment and celebrity coverage takes priority over factual information about the candidates’ policies, and polling data is not used to analyze the voters’ motives. This form of reporting also contributes to depoliticization and dehumanization by replacing politics with a televised sporting event that is indistinguishable from a gladiatorial spectacle.