05/05/2012 08:25 EDT | Updated 06/23/2015 05:59 EDT

The Kentucky Derby: The Ultimate Blood Sport?

Before you watch the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby today, consider the following wretched statistics. Each year approximately 37,000 thoroughbreds are born in the United States and registered with the Jockey Club. In 2010, more than 112,000 American horses were slaughtered in Mexico and Canada. An estimated 33,600 of those killed were young, healthy thoroughbred racehorses.

In 2007 the world was appropriately outraged when Michael Vick, an NFL superstar, was convicted of running an illegal dog-fighting ring. Dog fighting is widely considered the sport of thugs, and perpetrators are rightly rounded up and imprisoned. Americans have a somewhat different opinion of the "sport of kings," however: Last year some 14.54 million people tuned in to what they did not realize were two of the most brutal minutes in television.

Before you watch the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby today, consider the following wretched statistics. Each year approximately 37,000 thoroughbreds are born in the United States and registered with the Jockey Club. In 2010, more than 112,000 American horses were slaughtered in Mexico and Canada. An estimated 33,600 of those killed were young, healthy thoroughbred racehorses.

The ratio of slaughtered to survived? 10.9 to one.

Twenty-one animals will run the Derby this year. Lets apply these odds: If they properly represented America's thoroughbreds, then 19 of them would die in the slaughterhouse. Of course the participants in the Run for the Roses have a better chance at a nice retirement. It is by no means an iron-clad guarantee, however: not even for the greatest athletes.

In 1986 Ferdinand broke from a four-horse pack to win the Derby by 2 ¼ lengths. The chestnut stallion went on to win the Breeders Cup in 1987, and was later awarded Eclipse Horse of Year.

By 1994, Ferdinand was standing stud in Japan. His progeny, however, proved not to be racing prodigies. Hence the Derby winner -- whose career earnings were a record-breaking 1.47 million dollars -- became basashi.

"Basashi," should you not be familiar with this delicacy, is horse sushi.

Proponents of horse slaughter argue that horses are no different from other livestock commercially slaughtered for meat. This is a tragically inaccurate claim, easily refuted by experts in animal behavior.

Temple Grandin, famous for her work designing humane slaughter methods, writes: "The big difference between cattle and horses is that cattle aren't pure flight animals. When cattle are threatened by predators they bunch together and seek safety in numbers or turn and fight with their horns. " Horses, on the other hand, are like deer and antelope: They are pure flight animals. According to Grandin, they are "more skittish and startle more easily than prey animals that bunch, which makes them easy to traumatize."

Despite crucial differences in psychology and physiology, American horses are slaughtered in facilities with equipment, like captive bolt guns, designed strictly for cows. The purpose of a captive bolt gun is to destroy an animal's cerebrum, leaving it completely unconscious during exsanguination. Unfortunately, since its skull is much thicker than a cow's, a horse is frequently fully conscious as it is bled out.

Ironically, the racing industry's unfortunate discards represent a disaster not simply for horses, but also for the humans who supposedly benefit from this slaughter. More than 90% of American horses are slaughtered for human consumption. Since virtually no American horses are purpose-raised for meat, their bodies contain a potentially toxic cocktail of chemicals.

This is a particular problem in the case of thoroughbreds fresh from their racing careers. Despite the fact that "doping" is against Jockey Club policies, thoroughbreds frequently test positive for drugs like cocaine, Viagra, and Aminorex (a drug with effects similar to methamphetamine), along with more common stimulants and steroids.

Perhaps the most hazardous substance, Phenylbutazone, can be found in virtually all racehorses. This anti-inflammatory -- known as "bute" in the horse world -- is the equine equivalent of Aspirin, and is frequently given to thoroughbreds for swelling and injuries associated with racing. Dr. Gregory Ferraro, who heads up the Center for Equine Health at the University of California at Davis, points out:

"In general, treatments designed to repair a horse's injuries and to alleviate its suffering are now used to get horses onto the track to compete -- to force the animal, like some punchdrunk fighter, to make just one more round."

This approach requires huge quantities of painkillers, and high on the list is Phenylbutazone.

According to a study by Tufts University, "Phenylbutazone is banned for use in any animal intended for human consumption because it causes serious and lethal idiosyncratic adverse effects in humans." Americans dodge this toxin, because the sale of horsemeat is prohibited. Thousands of Canadians, French, Belgian and Japanese, however, unknowingly put themselves and their families at risk by consuming America's tainted castoffs.

The slaughter of thoroughbreds is not the only reason you should avoid tuning in to the spectacle at Churchill Downs. When Eight Belles collapsed and was euthanized on national television, moments after placing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, the media called it a "freak accident." Unfortunately, anyone who spends time at a racetrack is aware that these supposedly rare events are simply the norm. Casualties like Barbaro and Eight Belles are the tragic reality of horseracing.

The issue at the heart of this is surprisingly simple. For financial reasons, the racing industry pushes equine athletes to their physical limit before they reach skeletal maturity.

Racehorses begin training as yearlings, and typically start their careers as two-year-olds. The horses running the Kentucky Derby are three years old, which is only halfway to maturity. Equines, regardless of breed or condition, are never completely mature skeletally before the age of six.

Most critically, the spine of a three-year-old horse is not completely fused: hence they lack the balance and coordination necessary to compensate for missteps and irregularities in the track.

Nobody who witnessed Eight Belle's horrifying accident will ever forget this: the obvious contortion of her front legs as she tried to stand, and the look of sheer panic when she found it impossible. Far from a "freak accident," each year roughly 1,200 thoroughbreds die while training or during an actual race.

The dire statistics above become even worse. Remember: an average of 37,000 thoroughbreds are born yearly. An average of 33,600 go to the slaughterhouse. That's a difference of 3,400. Now let's subtract the 1,200 who die on the track. We're left with 2,200. This is by necessity a very rough calculation, but it gives you some idea of how many thoroughbreds -- out of 37,000 born -- will ever be retired, or adopted as riding horses. Only 5.9 per cent.

Publicly, the Jockey Club is anti-slaughter. They came out in favor of the (now reversed) 2006 bill that banned the slaughter of horses in the United States. So they should have: It was good publicity. If they truly cared about these miserable numbers, however, a few simple changes in policy could save thousands of racehorses.

As it currently stands, thoroughbreds are required to "break maiden" -- or win their first race -- by the age of four. This makes it absolutely impossible for thoroughbred trainers, even if they were so inclined, to wait until a horse has reached physical maturity.

By making it illegal to race any horse under the age of six, the Jockey Club could nearly eliminate overpopulation.

Raising horses is expensive. If you can throw them away after a couple of years, then you can raise many more of them. You can cover your odds. Thoroughbred owners typically spend around $4,000 a year on animals not in training. They spend anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 on horses in training.

If forced to keep horses until a sane racing age, breeders would not only have to concentrate on fewer horses, but would have to breed them far more carefully. More selectively bred horses, who have been allowed to fully mature before they race, will be significantly less likely to suffer fatal injuries.

Racing aficionados bet on the horses. Breeders hedge their bets, by breeding far too many. The racing industry bets on horse lovers never properly educating themselves about the misery forced upon the athletes.

As we are clearly in the gambling mood, can I suggest a long shot? Your chances of accomplishing something are not stellar, but consider signing a petition to the Jockey Club, urging them to change their cynical rules.