It’s happened again. A horse breaks down in one of the signature events of horse racing, precisely at the time that average Americans briefly turn their gaze to the spectacle and become fans or followers for a day. Their interest in horse racing is as fleeting as one or two mad dashes of horses in a Triple Crown race. But now, rather than remembering the pomp and circumstance and getting a positive dose of the sport, they remember the names of the poor creatures who break down on national television.
For those only mildly interested in horse racing, it certainly appears that something is wrong with the sport. First Barbaro. Now Eight Belles, a 3-year-old filly. And for those immersed in the sport—the breeders, trainers, owners, veterinarians, and the fans—there’s been a history of denial, but now perhaps a grudging acknowledgment of the problems with horse racing.
Horse racing—except on a few days in the run-up to major races—has long been relegated to the back pages of the Sports section. It does not compare with football, baseball, basketball, or even hockey. It’s been overtaken by soccer and sometimes by track and field. It’s still a major industry, but it’s become more of a niche interest rather than a general interest spectator sport. At the tracks themselves, there is a diminishing handle and an aging fan base—not as pronounced as in greyhound racing for sure, but unmistakable nonetheless.
Catastrophic injuries have tarnished horse racing.
Not too long ago, it was apostasy for sports writers or reporters to criticize horse racing or to comment on the humane treatment issues. Now, as we saw after the breakdown of Barbaro and failed efforts to rehabilitate him, there’s a spirited debate. Angered by the death of Eight Belles, New York Times columnist William Rhoden asked, "Why do we refuse to put the brutal game of racing in the realm of mistreatment of animals?" He asked, "At what point do we at least raise the question about the efficacy of thousand-pound horses racing at full throttle on spindly legs?"
Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins also wrote in Sunday’s paper about the thoroughbreds "on champagne-glass ankles" and the inherent problems in the industry. "Twice since 2006, magnificent animals have suffered catastrophic injuries on live television in Triple Crown races, and there is no explaining that away," wrote Jenkins. "Horses are being over-bred and over-raced, until their bodies cannot support their own ambitions, or those of the humans who race them. Barbaro and Eight Belles merely are the most famous horses who have fatally injured themselves. On Friday, a colt named Chelokee, trained by Barbaro’s trainer Michael Matz, dislocated an ankle during an undercard for the Kentucky Oaks and was given a 50 percent chance of survival."
Horse racing has gotten a pass from animal advocates for decades. We’ve been more worried about the mistreatment of dogs in puppy mills and the tragedy of healthy and adoptable companion animals being euthanized in shelters across the nation. We’ve been concerned about millions of animals killed by the fur trade—clubbed or trapped or caged to peel away their fur even though we have viable alternatives. We’re repulsed by the killing of tens of thousands of animals by trophy hunters at canned hunting facilities, or the shooting of rare animals like polar bears or grizzly bears or wolves. And more and more, we are turning our attention to the routine privations endured by billions of farm animals raised on factory farms. And in terms of horses, the bigger crime has always been the horse slaughter industry, which gathers up and slaughters tens of thousands of healthy horses every year, transports them by inhumane means, and then terrorizes these highly alert animals on kill floors in the United States or Mexico or Canada.
The tragic death of Eight Belles, as discomfiting and disturbing as it was, is unlikely to reorder our priorities. We’ll say a few words about horse racing, as do the commentators and industry press, but we’ll return to our priorities in a couple of days. But that’s a mistake for us all. This industry has not had a rigorous critic to set it in the straight and narrow, and major problems have grown and festered. It’s time for the thoroughbred industry to deal with its problems, and if it does not, animal advocates may well decide they can no longer continue to give the industry a free pass.
Here are some of the historic problems. Drugging of injured horses to keep them running, which makes vulnerable horses more susceptible to breakdowns. Racing horses too young. Because the marquee events feature 3-year-olds, these horses must start racing at the tender age of two years, and that’s well before their skeletal systems are sturdy enough to endure the pounding from the rigors of the race track. And third, racing horses on track surfaces that are not forgiving—with American tracks favoring dirt surfaces over grass or synthetics.
And then there are the problems coming to light more than ever—problems related to breeding. Breeding too many horses, and waiting for someone else to clean up the problem. And breeding them for body characteristics that make these animals vulnerable to breakdowns, especially those spindly legs on top of these stout torsos.
Sally Jenkins writes, "According to several estimates, there are 1.5 career-ending breakdowns for every 1,000 racing starts in the United States. That’s an average of two per day."
It’s up to the industry. Deal with your problems, or animal advocacy groups and others not all that interested in horse racing will be forced to weigh in.