Kentucky Derby: Alternatives to the Cruelty

by | May 18, 2022

In today’s world of perpetual social media, events that are visually stunning have caught on, and I’ve noticed a bit of a renaissance of the Kentucky Derby Party. People get together in eccentric fancy dress with ornate hats and colorful cocktails to watch horse races and gamble. On its surface, it may seem like a harmless way to make fun memories that will delight you when you flip back through your Instagram Stories to see bright dresses and suits and feathered hats.

But the Kentucky Derby remains a monument to a history of cruelty in this country. We were painfully reminded of its cruel legacy this year when, at three years old, Medina Spirit, the 2021 Derby winning horse, collapsed and died from a heart attack after a practice. Medina Spirit’s Derby victory was marred by controversy because he tested positive for drugs that are prohibited on race day. And this is not an isolated incident. In 2020,  more than two dozen trainers, veterinarians, and drug distributors were indicted for participating in doping rings. And in 2018, a lethal year for horses in the U.S., nearly 500 Thoroughbred racehorses died.

IMG_7318” by mikelachance816

Most of us love horses–they’re a loveable animal, a symbol of freedom, and a companion animal who can be used to help those struggling with mental illness or addiction through equine therapy, even here in Pittsburgh. Assateague Island draws visitors every year hoping to spot the wild horses that live there. The jockeys and the racegoers who enjoy these Derby watch parties likely see themselves as horse lovers, too. But the truth is that horseracing is not only cruel, but absolutely lethal to these beloved animals. Horseracing has become highly competitive, with horses frequently racing year-round without enough recovery time between races. And the practice of drugging horses makes racing even more dangerous. Despite attempts to crack down on doping horses, the practice often continues. As a result of the tremendous pressure to perform at the highest level, these horses suffer broken limbs (which are fatal to horses in almost all cases) in addition to exhaustion. You just can’t push an animal beyond their limits without injury or death–but in the interest of winning not just the Kentucky Derby but the triple crown, many continue to exhaust their animals, just in order to win.

Photo by Gene Devine on Unsplash

When it comes at the cost of so much suffering and destruction for such beloved animals, is it really worth it for the chance to play dress-up, drink fancy cocktails, and gamble?

This season, say no to the treatment of horses in horse racing, and skip the Derby Party. In its place, throw a party that truly befits our love of these majestic creatures. Throw a Cruelty-Free Derby Alternative Party instead.

Kentucky Derby Style” by Steve Corey

Attire: What makes a Kentucky Derby the most iconic isn’t even the horseracing–it’s the dress code. People often wear bright, colorful dresses or sports jackets paired with an ornate hat, usually with feathers. 

Keep the cool colors, but lose the feathers. These feathers are actually another monument to immense cruelty and destruction in this country–the feather trade. So unforgiving were feather hunters, so absolute in their destruction, that they drove numerous birds to the brink of extinction. You can learn more about one bird hunter turned conservationist, Guy Bradley, whose efforts to prohibit the hunting of birds for feathers ended with his death. Feather fashion gets less attention than fur, but it, too, is a reminder of cruelty in the name of fashion. It’s a testament to the total destruction we wrought on birds here in North America–so opt for cruelty-free fashion instead.

Photo by Patrycja Polechonska on Unsplash


Refreshments: Keep the cocktails and finger food, but make the menu cruelty-free! You can opt for vegan wines (you can check out and finger sandwiches.

Gambling: Instead of using your money to bet on race horses being pitted against each other in a feat of exhaustion they have no say in, consider making donations to organizations like Humane Action Pittsburgh or other animal protection groups. If you want the fun of gambling, you can organize a 50/50 or a poker game with prize money, but with part of the proceeds going to a pro-animal charity.

Entertainment: Instead of watching the races, consider finding a documentary celebrating the lives of wild horses in the U.S. and around the world!


Aimee Douglass is the Director of Compassionate Living. Aimee works in the healthcare industry and has a bachelors degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a masters degree in Communications with a health care focus from Southern New Hampshire University.

Abhi Nadendla is a blogger at HAP and has been volunteering at the organization since late 2022. She is a student at the University of Pittsburgh and loves spending her free time helping out at animal shelters.

Hannah Lewis is a grant writer and blogger from Pittsburgh’s North Side who has been with HAP since 2020. In addition to writing and advocating for animals, she enjoys hiking, cooking plant-based meals, bouldering at her local climbing gym, and curling up with a good book and her long-haired cat, Freyja.

Kelly Frantz has recently joined the HAP family as a blog writer. She is passionate about animal protection and is excited to educate the community about animal welfare.