Op-Ed: After Thoroughbred Racing Overhaul, Unsanctioned Bush Racing Needs More Scrutiny

Dr. Joanna Grossman of the Animal Welfare Institute offers her take on Bush Racing in the U.S. Read on for more.

By Dr. Joanna Grossman


Horse racing has long been called the “sport of kings,” conjuring up images of the fanciful hats and seersucker blazers at the Kentucky Derby. More recently, however, horse racing’s image in the United States has been tarnished by high-profile federal indictments of thoroughbred trainers and veterinarians who doped horses under their care, and an equine death toll that far exceeds the number of fatalities in other racing jurisdictions around the world.

Yet, there’s an even darker side to racing: An increasing number of “bush tracks” have become hotbeds of animal abuse and criminal activity. At these unsanctioned, informal events (mainly located in rural areas), horses are injected with methamphetamine, cocaine and/or Ritalin, shocked by devices taped to jockeys’ wrists, and whipped relentlessly to make them run faster.

A recent investigation of this booming underground industry found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had planned to undertake a massive bust at Rancho El Centenario, an unlicensed track in Milner, Georgia, until the Federal Bureau of Investigation took over the case. Inexplicably, however, the FBI did not proceed with the raid, despite ample evidence collected by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) linking the track to illegal drug activity and high-stakes gambling. Last year, local authorities finally stepped in and charged six jockeys (five of whom also competed at sanctioned races) with animal cruelty, and an alleged bookie for illegal commercial gambling. The case is ongoing.

As disturbing as this situation is, Rancho El Centenario is just one of nearly 200 bush tracks operating largely under the radar in more than half of all states. Races typically involve two or more quarter horses competing on a makeshift track, which may stage up to 20 races a day. As an equine epidemiologist with the USDA explained, bush racing’s “fan base is expanding exponentially because of their use of social media to advertise and market their races.”

Last year, the American Veterinary Medical Association passed a resolution condemning bush tracks, noting the wide-ranging threats posed by unregulated racing, including catastrophic horse breakdowns (there are no official track veterinarians), pervasive illegal substances designed to push horses to the limit, and excessive whipping and electroshocking.

Beyond the serious animal welfare issues (and devastating jockey injuries), bush tracks have been implicated in organized criminal activities, including human and drug trafficking, illegal gambling, tax evasion, and violent crime. In 2012, for example, the FBI busted members of the Los Zetas drug cartel and auctioned off more than 400 quarter horses who were used for breeding and racing (sanctioned and unsanctioned) as part of a multimillion dollar money laundering scheme.

Congress passed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) in 2020 to clean up thoroughbred racing. The law aims to reduce the fatalities and injuries that have plagued U.S. horseracing and end the reliance on performance-enhancing drugs to mask pain, inflammation, and other warning signs that often precede catastrophic breakdowns.

After considerable delays and litigation, anti-doping and medication control regulations finally took effect in May. But HISA only applies to regulated and licensed thoroughbred racing in the United States.

Tackling the proliferation of underground bush tracks will require the same coordinated effort that led to bans against dog fighting and cock fighting in all 50 states. Over the years, Congress has passed legislation to aid law enforcement in prosecuting individuals involved in these illicit activities. Like dog fighting and cock fighting, bush racing involves senseless cruelty and is connected to other crimes. But because bush racing is less well known and can be confused with authorized racing meets, it is generally regarded with less contempt.

For the horses who have been abused, neglected and destroyed at bush tracks, increased scrutiny can’t come soon enough. It’s past time for law enforcement agencies to prioritize shutting down these venues.

Dr. Joanna Grossman is the equine program director for the Animal Welfare Institute.

Dr. Joanna Grossman