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Is the Sport of Horse Racing a Dying Industry?

Last updated: January 26, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

COVID-19 affected most industries and has many people wondering if the horse racing industry will die out or thrive when it’s passed. I have friends on both sides; some fear the pandemic will be its demise, while others think it will bounce back stronger than ever.

The sport of horse racing isn’t dying, but it’s been on life-support. In 2020 the horse racing industry lost over five billion dollars compared to prior years, and its popularity declined. But the dwindling interest doesn’t mean it’s dying; people still bet and watch horses racing in great numbers.

The horse racing industry is in the middle of a crisis. Media and animal rights activists beat it down, and then COVID-19 struck. The modern world poses new challenges to the sport that has many wondering if horse racing will still be around for future generations to enjoy. Read on as I explore what’s happening today and where things might go from here!

The sport of horse racing

Picture of horses during a race.

Horse racing is one of the oldest sports, dating back to the 12th Century. The English knights brought Arabian horses back from the Crusades and introduced the sport to the new world in the mid-1600s, where they created the first tracks in Long Island.

In the modern era of racing, the sport has gained a bad reputation for drug use. Most recently, 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Its trainer Bob Baffert is currently banned from Churchhill downs.

In addition, many speculate that there have been reports of animal abuse over the years, which is likely another reason why the sport is no longer as popular as it once was.

When horse racing began in America, it was a rare sport trending with all class groups, such as the social and economic elites, including the lower class groups. However, it became an organized industry back in 1868 when they created the American Stud Book.

Many were fascinated with the sport as it captured everyone’s attention in all United States regions, and for a while, it took a downturn as the economy struggled. As a result, many lost their interest in the sport, and their interest in gambling slowly declined.

When horse racing was at its peak.

By 1890, there were over 314 tracks built and operating in the United States, and by 1894, they had officially formed the American Jockey Club. However, in the 20th Century, the antigambling sentiment prevalent led almost all the states to ban bookmaking, which was how individuals would gather their bets and payout the winnings.

This incident almost caused the sport to halt until parimutuel betting got introduced in 1908, which caused the sport to flourish once again until World War II. By 1the 1930s, during the Great Depression, horse racing was a sport that captivated many individuals nationwide.

Owning a horse, watching racehorses, and betting on the races were very popular during these times and continued to spike throughout the 1900s. The main reason why the sport was popular amongst many in this era was that it was legal to place bets on horses.

Since the economy suffered immensely during this time, many were drawn in for the winners’ cash prizes. However, what pushed this sport to its peak were the famous horse races between War Admiral and Seabiscuit.

These horses were famous and favored amongst the crowd who gathered to see the victorious races between the two beasts. War Admiral was admired for its speed, while Seabiscuit was known for his slow pace and skill of holding with the pack and approaching with late acceleration.

Attending these races and making bets in hopes of winning the cash prize took people out of their depression and made their minds disconnect from the issues that surrounded them.

According to the American Horse Council (AHC) study, the horse industry has grown in the United States over the years, contributing $39 billion in direct economic impact, supporting 1.4 million jobs across the US.*

Picture of a horse racing barn at the Fairgrounds track in New Orleans.

Years that horse racing fell into a decline

The horse racing industry was valued at three billion dollars in 2020, reflecting a decrease of over 5 billion dollars over the previous years. Additionally, from 1985 to 2015, horse racing experienced a 3% decline in the polls, and recent studies show that this sport has continued to decline over the past two decades.

In 2002, $15 billion was the number of bets placed on horse races throughout the US, and by 2018, the number dropped to $11 billion. Additionally, in 2002, roughly 33,000 thoroughbreds were enrolled as racehorses; by 2018, the number drastically dropped to 19,925.

With so many other ways of gambling appearing over the years, horse racing has declined in popularity over the most recent years. Instead, slots, casinos, and Lotteries make it a more manageable and smoother gambling process.

Many individual sports have replaced people’s attention in horseracing, such as boxing, tennis, and baseball. However, this sport has lost many individuals’ interest due to its corruption within the races.

As a result, people have lost hope in finding any resolution to prevent any of it from continuing. Many have stopped their admiration for the sport because trainers have used drugs to enhance their horse’s performance chemically.

This belief traces back to the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Oscar Barrera phenomenon occurred. One trainer in New York seemed to improve his horse’s performance overnight without any explanation.

And since then, the sport has gained a bad reputation for drugs and horse performances over the years. Most recently, 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Its trainer Bob Baffert is banned from Churchhill downs.

Using whips on the horses during races doesn’t help one’s perception of why many speculate that this is a cruel sport. Over the years, these horses have suffered many catastrophic injuries, with little attention paid to them and their safety.

Many racehorses that sustain a leg injury are euthanized, and two-thirds of all horses are slaughtered, with many being from the horse racing industry. The industry sends over 10,000 horses annually to slaughter. That means that 20,000 of the foals born every year are killed annually for their flesh.

With not every horse sent to slaughter needing medical attention, the USDA documented roughly about 92.3 % of horses sent to slaughter are in good condition, with no impediments to living a productive life.

According to the racing data for the industry from Equibase, over 50 horses died in 2021 on the tracks. Most of the deaths belong to Charlestown, West Virginia, and in the race tracks located in New York and California.

Death has always been a part of horse racing, but we are more aware now with information at our fingertips and 24 hours news. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I wrote an article examining racehorse deaths over the years you may find interesting,

And in 2019, an investigative report revealed over 113 deaths in Florida alone. Not only is slaughter an inhumane way to end a horse’s life, but it is a terrifying and brutal way for these poor animals to experience this in their last moments of life.

So often, horses get shipped for more than 24 hours without food, water, or rest in tight, crowded trucks. It’s fair to say that everyone does not admire horseracing and the harm done within the industry to these innocent creatures.

As times change, the sport becomes more competitive, and some trainers abuse their horses, giving them less rest and making the animals endure long strenuous hours of work and heat.

The future of horse racing

Although it looks like the sport has declined in recent years, betting on sports on the other end is expected to grow by roughly $140 billion by 2024. This estimate may keep the horse racing industry on its tracks in continuing to be a sport in which many will participate and watch in hopes of earning their winnings.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the total handle of races was only down merely 1%. However, the number of races held in 2020 was 27,200, which is the lowest in our modern era.

The horse racing industry hopes to continue to stay afloat despite its many negative aspects within the races and wishes to grasp the attention of more individuals as our world continues to change over time.



How much money is in the horse racing industry?

Horse racing is big business; the industry in 2020 was worth 3 billion dollars, and in 2021, projections are that the figure will be closer to 3.5 million USD!

What is the racehorse industry?

The horse racing industry is huge; it includes track owners, gambling operators, advertising, simulcasting, ownership, breeding, training, and racing horses. Also included are companies that supply goods and services to the racing industry, such as feed and hay suppliers.