Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Final Word on the Derby Disaster

I really appreciated all of the comments I got from my last post, where I lamented how many of our great equine athletes are suffering fatal injuries during competition. The big filly Eight Belles was the latest, who finished an awe-inspiring second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby, only to break down (now there's a polite euphemism) past the finish line, requiring her to be euthanized on the track.

Just to be clear, I am not anti-horse racing. Nor am I anti-Three Day Eventing. Both require an artistic approach to management of bloodlines, training and preparation, not to mention an entourage of knowledgeable assistants behind the barn.

As others have said, you cannot force a horse to race; indeed, the typical healthy Thoroughbred seems possessed of a need for speed. However, while Thoroughbreds seem to instinctively want to run, I would counter that's because "we" have bred them for centuries to do just that. It's sort of the same reason why Border Collies want to herd other animals and Jack Russell terriers want to tunnel their way into burrows: they've been genetically programmed to do that.

What we have to do as our horses' caretakers is make certain that they are physically up to the challenge of high stakes competition, whether that's on the track or on the cross country course. Steps are certainly being taken by the USEF to examine-- and improve-- the problems recently encountered in Three Day Eventing.

Horse racing, on the other hand, is seemingly caught in a quandary. The fastest, most prolific bloodlines (Native Dancer being one of them) also happen to be bloodlines that produce large, lanky, slow to mature youngsters. But our classic races are conducted when these Baby Hueys are barely 3 years old. And then there is the whole controversy over the actual racing surfaces. Churchill Downs-- home of the Kentucky Derby-- still has the traditional loamy dirt track while Santa Anita and several other upper echelon tracks have switched to a synthetic surface which is believed to be safer for the horses' legs.

Horse racing is an industry that brings millions of dollars into the coffers of states that sanction meets thanks to income from wagering and all the related businesses. Horse racing is not going to end, but the general public-- the fan base-- is falling out of love with a sport that brought North America some of the most memorable horses to life. Man O' War, Citation, Seabiscuit, Kelso, Native Diver, John Henry, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Smarty Jones... The lives of horse lovers have been enriched by the courage and heart and class of such grand horses. At its best, horse racing is a celebration of the spirit of the Thoroughbred. But at its most tragic moments, we mourn the loss of Go for Wand, Ruffian, Barbaro, Eight Belles and others who ran their hearts out until their fragile legs could not bear the stress.

Some of the suggestions you offered in comments and emails have been echoed by other horse lovers across the continent. One idea that continues to crop up is to schedule our classic races, like the Triple Crown, for four-year-olds, when the horses are more physically mature. I'm afraid that a sport so steeped in tradition will be loathe to make such a drastic alteration. But something needs to be done because the Sport of Kings is quickly losing its regal luster.
Next blog post will be something happy, I promise.


Anonymous said...

The article from the UK is interesting http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2008/may/06/horseracing.ussport "This tends to produce horses with big engines and light frames, which may well be another reason why the average number of starts for an American racehorse has dropped by 44% since 1960 to just 6.3, according to an article in yesterday's Wall Street Times. "

"As ESPN.com put it yesterday: "[Richard] Dutrow [Big Brown's trainer] has been fined and suspended dozens of times in his career, sometimes for drugging himself and sometimes for drugging his horses. He says he's gotten his personal life in better shape, but documents from the Association of Racing Commissioners International show that he's gotten in trouble every year this decade when it comes to medicating his horses."

Jessica said...

Well said Cindy. I think when it comes to both racing and eventing, the horses absolutely LOVE their job. There's no way you could make them do it! - Look at the amazing pony Teddy O'Connor jumping huge hurdles he can't even begin to see over. These horses have such GREAT hearts; I feel we have an even greater responsibility to protect them when they give us everything they have.
While I'm neither against racing nor eventing (as I'm a Beginner Novice eventer), I am praying that strides will be made to make our sport safer.

Anonymous said...

Well said!

Anonymous said...

i completely agree.something has to change.

Anonymous said...

If there is one thing that needs to be changed about racing and/or eventing, it is the people making horses compete when they are off. I know that not everybody who competes in these sports do run injured animals, but in everything, there are a select few that do. The recent tragedies in eventing were nobody's fault, accidents happen.

As for in racing, I saw Eight Belles attempt to pull to the outside rail on the home stretch. I also saw that her jockey barely had to work to change her mind. If her jockey had listened to her, if he had allowed her to listen to herself. Now, I'm not trying to blame anybody, maybe her jockey never realized that she was hurting. I've worked with racehorses fresh off the track, once they're running, they are running. They keep running until the race is over, and I've only worked with slow claimers.

Thoroughbreds have so much heart, sometimes, too much. It takes two hands to count the great horses that raced, and finished, with injuries to one leg or another. I watched Barbaro attempt to keep running with his injury, I give kudos to Edgar Prado for convincing him to pull up, as well as to Ruffian's jockey.

Any horse competing at that level, no matter the sport, is a truly remarkable creature and it is our responsibity to tell them when they are not well enough to compete. Coming from another racing animal (myself), they know when they are hurting, but that doesn't mean that they will give in to the pain and put aside their love of the sport.

Cindy Hale said...

Those are two great articles. Thanks for the links! I also read several thoughtful editorials from major newspapers and wire services that all voice the same concerns about horse racing.

I also think it's interesting that there's some talk about either elminating whipping altogether or switching to "whips" made of Nerf ball material (sort of a spongy material). So the jockeys could still use the "whip" to help guide the race horse and cue it to switch leads, but it wouldn't effectively make a horse continue to run when it sensed it needed to pull up. Plus, such whips wouldn't raise welts.