We all know by now that Eight Belles, only the 39th filly to run in the 134-year history of the Kentucky Derby, broke both front ankles and had to be euthanized immediately after the end of the race, right on the Churchill Downs track. Her injuries, and their fatal result, were reminiscent of Barbaro’s well-publicized demise two years earlier, and the resulting brouhaha has animal-rights groups targeting horse racing. I called my buddy Max Watman, the New York Sun's horse-racing correspondent, and author of Race Day: A Spot on the Rail with Max Watman (the Times Book Review said the book managed to wax nostalgic about the sport without being “waxy”), to gauge his concerns over his sport’s white-gloved, mint-julep-drinking image morphing into something more widely considered animal abuse, like dog racing.
“Dog racing?” Max laughed. “That’s nothing. I’ve heard it compared to bull fighting lately.”
But he’s not worried. While Watman insists that losses like Eight Belles and Barbaro are truly tragic, he also said, “Every once in a while horse racing reminds people that it’s an agricultural event. Spend five minutes on a farm and you’re surrounded by death. That’s an agricultural reality.” This sounded familiar to me, maybe from Charlotte’s Web. Also, Watman pointed out, horses that people ride for pleasure, police mounts, or horses that pull carriages full of tourists, get hurt and need to be put down, just not with the world watching. Kind of like a couple summers ago, when a spike in shark attack news coverage made it seem as if swimmers everywhere were risking their lives just by getting in the water.
The facts bear this up. There are so many racehorse deaths that one handy online directory (on Wikipedia) groups them by year. And those are only the dead horses profitable enough to get mentioned in the news or blogosphere. In the wake of well-publicized deaths like Eight Belles and Barbaro, not to mention the specter of the Michael Vick situation, I don’t know if those points, however salient and accurate, would change the minds of the animal lovers I have recently heard grumbling.
However, Watman did have several ideas for reforms that would benefit the sport of kings. He thinks that changing the track surfaces would help prevent a lot of catastrophic injuries. Tighter restrictions on equine medicines would be good, because some trainers use them to mask a horse’s condition. As Max said, “A horse can’t just say when it’s not feeling good, or what hurts.” Also, the bloodlines are way too thin, with nearly every thoroughbred in America today a descendant of Northern Dancer, the 1964 Preakness Stakes and Kentucky Derby winner. The late R&B legend Screamin’ Jay Hawkins had about 55 known offspring, which is staying pretty busy, but Screamin’ Jay had nothing on Northern Dancer. Compared to that horse, Screamin’ Jay was a gelding.
Perhaps steroids are the sport’s biggest obstacle. Watman doesn’t think so, but I have to disagree. According to numerous media reports, Big Brown, the horse that won this year’s first two Triple Crown races, received monthly doses of stanozolol, the same steroid that got Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson ejected from the 1988 Olympics. Horseracing’s Triple Crown hasn’t been won since Affirmed, in 1978, so if Big Brown accomplishes the feat, would steroids taint that victory? Let’s just say this: nobody has hit for baseball’s Triple Crown since Yaz, in 1967, as every true Red Sox fan knows. Now, if we suddenly found out that Captain Carl had been juicing back in ’67, would we be less impressed? The answer is hell yes, not neigh. I mean, nay.