In a world where people want to bet on anything and everything, it perhaps should be all that much of a surprise that there is usually an illegal alternative to anything that is legal.
Whilst the likes of illegal underground boxing might not come as much of a shock to people that have watched films like Fight Club, the same sort of attitude might not be the case when discussing illegal horse racing. Though it is a more common thing to come across in the United States of America, it is also something that happens in the UK – despite the fact there are nearly 50,000 legal races each year.
Whilst getting away with illegal horse racing in the US is understandable because of the vast size of the country, the same can’t be said for the United Kingdom. That means it is much less common in Britain, though it does still happen.
As you can imagine, there are all sorts of things that happen at such events, which is what makes them illegal. The idea of looking after the welfare of the horses is secondary, if not disregarded entirely, whilst any bets placed on such events are liable to be lost entirely from the unscrupulous people taking them.
What Are Illegal Horse Races?
There is a difference between a race that takes place outside the jurisdiction of the British Horseracing Authority, or the relevant authority in the country in question, and one that it completely illegal.
It is, in many ways, equitable to the difference between flapping tracks and licensed ones in greyhound racing, alongside ones that are completely illegal. In that instance, licensed tracks are ones that that have gained a licensed to operate from the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, whilst flapping tracks have not done so and therefore operate without the oversight of the governing authority.
Illegal greyhound races, meanwhile, are those that take place ‘underground’, known only to a select few and with practices in place that are often harmful or dangerous to the participating greyhounds. Similarly, the world of illegal horse racing isn’t just one where the British Horseracing Authority hasn’t issued a licence, but is one where the people involved are taking part without any sense of oversight.
There is no duty of care to the horses or the jockeys, meaning it is essentially an experience in which anything goes. This is what makes it illegal and, as with similar greyhound racing, dangerous to all concerned.
Rancho El Centenario
For an example of the world of illegal horse racing, it is worth looking to a town of 800 people called Milner, located in the US state of Georgia. The racecourse is called Rancho El Centenario, flying the flag of Mexico and using armed guards to search the cars of any and all people that wish to head in to watch the racing. In order to be able to do so, they need to pay $100 a head, which gives them entry to the pecan farm on which the racing will take place. The people heading there know what to expect and it isn’t what they’d get at a licensed race track.
Journalists witnessed a trainer plunge a syringe into the neck of a horse, eliciting cheers from the nearby crowd when one of them asked for another for her. Though they denied that it contained performance-enhancing drugs, instead insisting that it was just designed to prevent the horse from having a stroke or a heart attack, evidence suggests otherwise. A journalist from the Washington Post picked up a similar syringe post-use and sent it to Industrial Laboratories, who said that it contained methamphetamine and methylphenidate.
This, of course, is just one example of such a track. There were 89 such locations at the time that the article was published. These unregulated ‘bush tracks’ are places where the trainers can do what they want to the horses. Animal abuse stands alongside doping as something that goes on unchecked at such tracks. Even jockeys aren’t safe, as one jockey, who was kicked out of regulated racing for using shock devices, found out when he died at Rancho El Centenario. Whether you’re riding or being ridden, the risk of death is high at such a track.
Between June 2021 and April 2022, the organisation known as PETA, which stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, ran an investigation into tracks just like the one in Georgia.
They believe that more than 100 such tracks exist around the United States of America, mostly flying under the radar of the authorities. Those involved in such races injected horses with a cocktail of drugs, largely aimed at revving up their performances but also done in order to mask injuries that the horses may have or mask pain that they were suffering.
Anything from cocaine to coffee via methamphetamine was discovered in the syringes used by the ‘trainers’. The horses, meanwhile, were regularly whipped and electrocuted by the jockeys and others. The practice of whipping horses is limited by the American horse racing authorities, whilst electrocution is banned entirely.
Neither practice is even remotely limited in these ‘bush’ tracks, however. Horses will regularly collapse after such treatment, often landing in such a way that the jockey that was riding them will be severely injured if not even killed in certain circumstances.
Illegal Racing In The United Kingdom
Whilst illegal racing is obviously common in the USA, it isn’t as if it goes completely unheard of in the United Kingdom. In December of 2021, for example, Hampshire Constabulary were dispatched to an event taking place between Winchester and Basingstoke on the A33.
This was because a horse and trap event was taking place there, leading to hundreds of people heading to the area to watch it. As a result, local police felt that they had to monitor the area indefinitely in order to stop such a thing happening again.
The event was mostly organised underground, leading to confusion for local people that were simply trying to travel on the A road but were unable to do so. The road, near Micheldever, was taken over by members of the travelling community so that the illegal racing could take place. Attendees arrived in the early hours of both Saturday May first and Sunday May second, with police being called on account of the blocking of the road. Interestingly, they allowed the event to continue but police remained on site for the majority of the weekend to ensure that no trouble occurred.
The obvious question is why the event was allowed to continue, with the answer being that the police decided that it was safer to do so than to try to disperse those that were present. A spokesperson said,
“This type of action is not exclusive to this event, as with any large gatherings we have seen across the country this past year, policing always has to balance whether allowing an event to happen, even if illegal, is safer than the risks of shutting it down.” Though the primary focus was on safety, the police did confirm that it was ‘an illegal sporting event, and we do not support or facilitate it’.
Betting On Illegal Horse Racing
As you might imagine, such events take place largely because people want to bet on them. Indeed, betting is illegal in the state of Georgia, yet bookmakers would regularly walk around the crowd and take wagers from the crowd. The problem, of course, is that there is no recourse for people that place bets with illegal bookies and then don’t get paid out any winnings.
One of the chief jobs of the likes of the United Kingdom Gambling Authority is to protect punters from having their money effectively stolen from them by illegal bookmakers, but they can’t do so at such illegal events.
The question, therefore, becomes about one of risk. Why are people happy to attend such events and risk their money betting on races that are not in any way regulated, often involve giving dangerous drugs to the horses taking part in them and see both the horses and the jockeys’ lives put on the line for entertainment?
It is obviously a matter of conscience for people, but it is clear from the thousands that turn up to locations such as Rancho El Centenario that they are not overly concerned about the welfare of anyone but themselves.
Though bookmakers taking illegal bets are likely to have their licences suspended, the reality is that it is all but impossible for the authorities to find out who is willing to attend these sorts of events. Aside from anything else, they happen ‘underground’ and it is therefore incredibly difficult to keep track of any of the people involved in it.
Those that are caught will almost certainly lose their licence, should they avoid arrest for taking part in something that is illegal. The police, of course, have limited resources to stop such things from taking place and do what they can.