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Bush Tracks - The Darker Side of Horse Racing
 By Winniefield Park   •   31st May 2017   •   1,581 views   •   0 comments


Most of us are familiar with Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse racing and know where the tracks are in our own area, and where the major tracks like Churchill Downs and Pimlico, the home of some of the most important races are. But, dotted throughout North America are something known as 'bush tracks'. Races held at bush tracks are less formal than those that we are most likely to watch or attend. Often they are match races. And, Quarter Horses seem to be more favored than Thoroughbreds. Sadly, not only are they less formal, but many have a seedy side that is a concern for several different reasons.

Unsanctioned or bush races are held at racetracks and they can be held in open fields using things like barrels, old rails or natural obstacles to mark the track. There is often no barrier and little space between the racers and the spectators. The races are typically not held at tracks and regularly moved to different locations to avoid the notice of law enforcement.

Animal Welfare
In a recent story from a Denver TV news channel, journalists observed an unsanctioned race held in Colorado. Racing rules in North America prohibit the excessive use of whipping during a horse race, and there are rules about what type of whip may be used. The Professional Jockey Association publishes guidance for whip use. Within the guidelines, it states that the jockey’s hands may be taken off the reins to use the whip no more than seven times. There are penalties if the whip is misused in a way that is excessive or leaves marks on the horse’s skin.

In the bush races, there are no such rules however, and the investigators of the Colorado races reported that the whipping was almost non-stop. In sanctioned horse racing, bumping other competitors and doing anything that might be considered ‘fouling’ can be penalized if it becomes excessive. Not so in bush racing, where it can be all part of the strategy with no consideration for the safety of the jockey or the horse.

Animal welfare also comes into question when horses are given medications meant to enhance their performance. Many drugs are prohibited or strictly controlled in official horse racing, but in bush racing... anything goes. Horses are injected with cocktails of drugs such as painkillers, steroids and stimulants. As a result, horses run harder than they should and can injure themselves without feeling the pain. This endangers both horse and rider. Horses become disposable because it’s not their own athleticism that is being tested, but the drugs that make them run faster.

Human Safety
Of course, riding a horse that is basically high on drugs is unsafe for the jockeys. But, because the races aren’t held at tracks where tracks are built with safety in mind, the spectators can be hurt too. There are no age restrictions for jockeys, so inexperienced riders and even children can race.

Money Laundering and Other Illegal Activities
In most places gambling is illegal without a permit. While some bush races might follow the rule of the law when it comes to gambling, many don’t. The results of the races can be rigged, and that can mean big profits for those who organize these races and facilitate wagering. Lots of money is exchanged. Betting is done between individuals, and if the loser of a race or a bet doesn’t pay up, fights can ensue. Violence is common. Some tracks and participants have close links to organized crime. At least one incident in recent years has led to a murder.

Some good does come out of bush races. It’s where some successful jockeys got their start. But the organizations that support humane treatment of animals and the safety of track workers, jockeys, and the spectators, and law enforcement would like to see the end of bush racing for good.
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