With wins in this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness, American Pharoah has one more race to win to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. Fans will pay close attention to Saturday's Belmont Stakes because they love a winner, but also because they love horses -- their beauty, athleticism and storied place in American culture.
But of the 25,000 thoroughbreds bred each year, very few will compete in the Triple Crown races so familiar to us. And tens of thousands of other horses of other breeds will never gain a spot in the limelight, and certainly not in the winner's circle of a major race.
Too often, these horses do not make the cut with their owners, or they are redirected from a legitimate enterprise -- racing, work or pleasure riding -- and sent into the horse slaughter trade.
Data from the U.S. and Canadian governments indicate that more than 100,000 American horses a year are exported and slaughtered in Canada or Mexico for human consumption, often after a long, typically harrowing journey that starts in an auction barn in a rural part of the United States.
It's an inhumane process from start to finish, and far from a dignified or appropriate end for a creature that did nothing wrong and which deserved much better than to be turned into a slab of meat for a foreign consumer.
The predatory horse slaughter industry doesn't euthanize old, sick horses. Precisely the opposite: Kill buyers, typically misrepresenting their intentions, purchase young and healthy horses and haul them away. At auctions, kill buyers often bid against legitimate horse owners and horse rescuers. Based on observations by our organization, most horses going to slaughter are in good condition and able to live healthy and productive lives.
Horses are transported long distances in overcrowded trailers and are badly injured or even killed during transit, according to documents obtained from the Department of Agriculture. Inside the bloody, panic-stricken environment of a slaughterhouse, their suffering only intensifies as horses endure repeated attempts to render them unconscious. When horse slaughter plants operated on U.S. soil before being rightfully shut down in 2007, it proved to be no better: The USDA documented horrific cruelty, including broken bones and eyeballs hanging from eye sockets by a thread of skin.
Although horse slaughter is so ruthless and inhumane, proponents of this grisly practice try to convince the public that slaughter is somehow "good" for horses that otherwise would be neglected. But it's actually the kill buyers who routinely abandon horses, especially at the border when they are rejected for slaughter. They are also responsible for a laundry list of cases of severe neglect.
Beyond being a predatory enterprise, the horse slaughter industry also endangers human health by peddling tainted meat.
Horses in the United States are not raised with the intention of turning them into food, so they therefore may be treated with any of hundreds of drugs over the course of their lives, both illegal and legal, that may be toxic to humans if ingested. One example is phenylbutazone, or "bute." It is as common to horses as aspirin is to humans, and is banned by the FDA for use in any animal intended for human consumption.
Then consider the makeshift pharmacy of drugs used in race horses -- from cobra venom to cocaine, according to a 2012 New York Times investigation. Because of these serious food safety concerns, the European Union, among the largest consumer of the meat of American horses, recently suspended horse meat imports from Mexico, where 87 percent of horses slaughtered for export to the EU were of U.S. origin. EU authorities made the decision after a series of scathing audits that exposed a cluster of problems, including a lack of traceability of American horses and horrific suffering on U.S. soil and in Mexico.
Most Americans disapprove of slaughtering horses for food. A national survey of 1,008 people in 2012 found that 80 percent opposed slaughtering of horses for human consumption.
To end the slaughter of American horses and protect the food supply, legislators in Congress introduced the Safeguard American Food Exports Act. It not only would prevent this clandestine, greed-driven industry from operating in America, but would outlaw the export of horses across our borders for slaughter.
So while we turn our attention to the next race, let us remember that every horse, whether a Kentucky Derby winner or a pleasure horse, deserves our protection and lifetime care.
Wayne Pacelle is president and chief executive of The Humane Society of the United States.