Why do we keep giving thoroughbred horse
racing a pass? Is it the tradition? The millions upon millions
invested in the betting?
Why isn’t there more pressure to put the sport
of kings under the umbrella of animal cruelty?
The sport is at least as inhumane as greyhound
racing and only a couple of steps removed from animal fighting.
Is it the fact that horse racing is imbedded
in the American fabric? And the Triple Crown is a nationally
televised spectacle? Or is it the fact that death on the track
is rarely seen by a mainstream television audience?
The sentiment was summed up by Dr. Larry
Bramlage on Saturday when, asked about fillies racing against
colts, he said, “One death is not an epidemic.”
But this isn’t about one death. This is about
the nature of a sport that routinely grinds up young horses.
A national audience was exposed to the
bittersweet experience of a tremendous victory by Big Brown and
— moments later — the stunning news that Eight Belles had been
euthanized. As we watched Big Brown’s owner celebrate the
unmitigated joy of winning the Derby, we watched Bramlage
describe the details of Eight Belles’s horrible death: She had
completed the race, finishing a heroic second to Big Brown. She
was around the turn at the start of the backstretch when her
front ankles collapsed.
Bramlage described the sickening image of what
had happened: a condylar fracture on the left side and the left
front that opened the skin, went through it and was
“She didn’t have a front leg to stand on to be
splinted and hauled off in the ambulance, so she was immediately
euthanized,” Bramlage said.
And that was that.
After the race, Larry Jones, Eight Belles’s
trainer, choked back tears as he answered questions about the
filly’s death. But even through the grief, Jones instinctively
toed the industry line about racing. He discounted the notion —
and veiled criticism — that the dirt surface might have
contributed to her death. He also refused to concede the point
that horse racing is an extremely dangerous sport, saying that
these types of injuries occur in any sport.
Within the racing industry, Eight Belles was a
tragic but glorious casualty. The industry is in denial: racing
grinds up horses, and we dress up the sport with large hats,
mint juleps and string bands.
Why do we refuse to put the brutal game of
racing in the realm of mistreatment of animals? At what point do
we at least raise the question about the efficacy of
thousand-pound horses racing at full throttle on spindly legs?
This is bullfighting.
Eight Belles was another victim of a brutal
sport that is carried, literally, on the backs of horses.
Horsemen like to talk about their thoroughbreds and how they
were born to run and live to run. The reality is that they are
made to run, forced to run for profits they never see.
On Saturday, it was Eight Belles in
Louisville. Two years ago, it was Barbaro in Baltimore, with a
misstep at the Preakness. And who knows how many horses die
anonymous deaths? Eight Belles, we’ll write, was merely the
casualty of a brutal game.
But one death is too many. The miracle of the
sport of kings is that there aren’t more. But how many more do
Before Saturday’s race, I walked over to the
stable where Michael Matz was preparing Visionaire for the
Derby. Matz was the trainer of Barbaro, the superhorse who won
here in 2006 and took that fatal misstep two weeks later at the
Preakness. On Friday, one of Matz’s horses, Chelokee, sustained
a condylar fracture of the cannon bone in his right front leg
during the running of the Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs.
The initial report was that the injury was of
the same nature as Barbaro’s, and that Chelokee had a fractured
ankle. The reports were inaccurate, but I wondered what thoughts
had gone through Matz’s mind.
“I just ran out there to see how he was
doing,” he said. Barbaro hadn’t crossed his mind, he said, just
this horse at this time. That was all. Matz talked briefly about
Barbaro, about why the image remains so fresh in our minds. Then
he excused himself. “I have to get my horse ready for this
race,” he said.
John Stephens broke in Barbaro and Visionaire
when they were yearlings. Stephens was in Baltimore when Barbaro
took the misstep. That experience, he said, has tempered, if not
changed, his perspective on horse racing.
“I want my horse to win — I’m not going to kid
you,” he said. “But not at all costs. I don’t want any horse to
get injured. I want everyone to have a good trip. I want
everybody to come back home.”
The words haunted me as I left the stable and
echoed as I saw Eight Belles in a heap. Thoroughbred racing is a
brutal sport. Why do we keep giving it a pass?
Click Here to See Video