Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Dead Horse in the Derby

Thoroughbred racing has reached a crisis.

This year’s Kentucky Derby gave us a serious Triple Crown threat in Big Brown, but few people are talking about him because the Derby gave us something else—a dead horse.

Horses have broken down in major stakes races before, but the death of Eight Belles is different because the Derby is different from other races. For many people who don’t know a furlong from a fetlock, it’s the only horse race they watch all year. There has been an idea among many racing fans that the Derby is somehow charmed—that there is some sort of Derby god who wards off tragedy and makes sure that the race is won by the people with the most heartwarming story.

History has borne this out. While Barbaro’s death affected many people, he sustained his fatal injury in the Preakness. Too many horses have died during the Breeders’ Cup championships. But you have to go back to 1974 for the last breakdown in the Derby. Flip Sal’s injury was relatively minor and he survived to stand stud.

Tragedy just doesn’t happen in the Derby—until now.

Eight Belles’ death horrified racing fans, scared off a lot of newbies, brought PETA out of the woodwork to compare horse racing to dog fighting, and left everyone concerned asking why.

Given the sport’s recent trends, the real question is why it took so long.

Since that awful day in 1990 when Go for Wand broke her leg in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, it seems as if a year doesn’t go by without a career- or life-ending injury in a major Thoroughbred stakes. The names mean little to anyone who’s not a racing fan, but they would have made for a pretty impressive feature event if they had all been entered in the same race. Holy Bull. Charismatic. Prairie Bayou. George Washington. Pine Island. Union City. Fanfair.

Then there was Barbaro. For two weeks, he captured the nation’s imagination with his impressive Derby win—and then, in an instant, his racing career was over and a nation awaited his recovery in vain.

In the aftermath of last week’s tragedy, a lot of revisionist history is being posted on message boards. Some people maintain that horse racing has always had a high casualty rate. They're calling it a cruel anachronism, not suitable for a more humane, politically correct era. At the same time, many horse racing supporters on these boards insist that nothing’s wrong, and that carting a dead horse off the track after every other televised race is somehow normal.

As a racing fan for over 35 years, I can tell you that the sport has changed. The horses that ran in the 2008 Kentucky Derby are not my grandfather's Thoroughbreds.

I grew up in the 1970s, a golden age for racing. The decade was highlighted by three Triple Crown winners and several near misses. Nobody had to give the competitors’ safety a second thought. Shooting a horse with a broken leg was a joke in my house because it happened so seldom. The only high-profile breakdown during the entire decade was Ruffian-and that occurred in an ill-conceived match race.

For about the last 20 years, it has been clear that the Thoroughbred is more fragile than it used to be. This is not nostalgia—this is fact. Seabiscuit raced 35 times as a 2-year-old alone. I will be surprised if any starter in this year’s Derby races 35 times in its career.

Racing needs to get its head out of its butt and do something. Synthetic tracks may reduce catastrophic injuries, but they are only a short-term solution. What needs to start now is a hard look at the breeding of the horses themselves. Are they being bred for the long-term good of the breed, or for short-term profit? Perhaps the industry has also become too dependent on drugs such as Bute and Lasix, which have allowed infirm horses to have successful racing careers and eventually enter the gene pool.

This is not about animal rights. This is about the survival of racing. The sport gained no new fans Saturday, and the old fans will not be able to close their eyes and think of Secretariat for much longer.

I will be rooting for Big Brown in the Preakness and Belmont—not to win the Triple Crown, but to make it around the track. And that’s not how racing was meant to be.

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