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Overview of Trainer Responsibility for Racehorse Breakdowns in New York

Cynthia F. Hodges, MA, JD

The Animal Legal and Historical Center
Publish Date:
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

Overview of Trainer Responsibility for Racehorse Breakdowns in New York


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Tragically, anywhere from 700 to 800 Thoroughbred racehorses have to be destroyed each year because of broken bones or ruptured tendons they have suffered while racing. Over the past two years, four horses have suffered fatal injuries in high profile horse races, including the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, which has escalated claims of cruelty in the sport. The number of racehorse fatalities has led many people to wonder who is ultimately responsible when a racehorse suffers a catastrophic injury. Because racehorse trainers are responsible for the physical condition of their horses, they should be held accountable when a horse in their training breaks down.

Trainers come from a variety of backgrounds, but most have had experience working with horses prior to training racehorses. In New York state, a trainer or assistant trainer must have a license from the state Racing and Wagering Board, which is granted if the applicant’s experience, character and general fitness meet the standard required. Trainers have to pass a written test to show that they know about horse anatomy, disease, medication, applicable rules, regulations and training conditions of racing, and training procedures and equipment. They also have to pass a practical examination on anatomy, lameness/disease and care of horses. The trainer’s background and experience make him or her an expert in racehorse care and maintenance. The trainer is the one who decides the horse’s training regimen and which drugs to administer. Trainers are primarily responsible for the care, condition, and health of their horses.

One might think that the trainer’s professional responsibility would be to safeguard the horses’ health, but unfortunately, the commercial and financial pressure to run sore horses has led many trainers to use drugs to keep their horses ready to race. When a horse develops physical problems, the trainer is more likely to give it a shot of cortisone as a short-term fix than to allow the horse to rest. The racehorses are pushed too hard when a slight injury makes them more vulnerable to increased injury if raced.

The New York regulations allow the drugs phenylbutazone or flunixin, which are pain-killers, to be given to a horse up to 24 hours before post time of a race. The use of drugs has been found to be a contributing factor in breakdowns because the horse cannot feel the pain of an injury and can seriously hurt itself. An injury could be made much worse if the horse continues working. Such an injury could even be fatal. Essentially, racehorse trainers are intentionally racing unfit horses, masking the pain of injury with drugs, and running the horses into the ground.

Working or racing a horse that is unfit for labor and causing it to break down is cruel under the New York anti-cruelty statute, Agriculture and Markets Law § 353. § 353 prohibits anyone from unjustifiably overdriving, torturing, injuring, or killing animals, and states:

A person who overdrives, ... tortures or ... unjustifiably injures, ... or kills any animal, ..., or causes, ... or permits any animal to be overdriven, ..., tortured, ..., or unjustifiably injured, ... or killed, ..., or who willfully sets on foot, instigates, engages in, or in any way furthers any act of cruelty to any animal, or any act tending to produce such cruelty, is guilty of a class A misdemeanor ....

This statute also prohibits any person from causing, permitting, or furthering any act that causes any animal to be overdriven, tortured, or unjustifiably injured, or killed. § 350 defines "torture" or "cruelty" as "every act, omission, or neglect whereby unjustifiable physical pain, suffering or death is caused or permitted." What is "unjustifiable" is “what is not reasonable, defensible, right, unavoidable or excusable.” Racing an unfit horse is avoidable, and is, therefore, unjustifiable. When trainers race unfit horses, the trainers are withholding medical care, which is neglect. They are also causing pain and further injury to the horses, which is cruel.

The trainer may be convicted of cruelty if an unfit horse is worked with his or her knowledge and consent. When trainers knowingly race unfit horses, they should be held criminally liable under § 353. § 353 should be applied to racehorses trainers who commit cruelty when they race horses they know to be lame or otherwise unfit. By holding trainers accountable for racing unfit horses, the number of catastrophic injuries may decrease.

For more on this issue, read the Detailed Discussion.

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