Saturday, November 07, 2009

Save the Babies! Why It's Long Past Time To Clean Up U.S. Thoroughbred Racing

I used to look forward to the Breeders Cup, an annual thoroughbred horse racing competition with more than $25 million in purse money that begins this weekend. Same with the Triple Crown. But it is obvious that the people who run this sport in America have only their best interests in mind. The horses are mere commodities to be raced and too often raced to death.

I began to sour on a sport that I have long loved because of what happened after the 2008 Kentucky Derby, an incredible race by any account.

Big Brown closed with an extraordinary burst of speed under picture-book blue skies to become the first horse to win the first leg of the Triple Crown from a 20th post position since 1929 and the first to win after only having run three races since 1919. And if that wasn't enough, Eight Belles -- the rare filly in a race dominated by colts -- gave Big Brown a run for the roses awarded the winner since the first Derby way back in 1874.

Eight Belles crossed the wire nearly five lengths behind Big Brown, but moments
later the champion filly fell without warning in front of her outrider as she was easing down. She had fractured both of her front ankles -- extraordinarily in the same stride -- and was euthanized as 157,000 Churchhill Downs fans and tens of millions more at home, at bars and betting parlors looked on in stunned silence.

I had watched last year's Triple Crown races with trepidation. Two years earlier, Barbaro (above, right), the Kentucky Derby winner, had broken down in the Preakness after shattering his right hind leg. He died several months later from the inevitable complications of such a severe injury.

The Barbaro tragedy prompted calls to adopt safer synthetic racing surfaces as opposed to traditional dirt ovals like Churchill, and there was the inevitable second-guessing over whether Eight Belles was done in by the track, which happened to be dry and fast, let alone whether she should have been competing against colts.

Eight Belles had never raced beyond a mile and one-sixteenth in her prior nine starts. The Derby is a mile and one-quarter. Only four fillies have ever won the Derby; the last was Winning Colors in 1988. And when Rags to Riches won the 2007 Belmont Stakes, the last leg of the Triple Crown, she was the first filly to capture the grueling mile and three-quarters race in 102 years.

There is an even larger issue that will never be addressed: Three-year-old horses -- and the Triple Crown is open only to three year olds -- are mere babies.

These horses may appear to be magnificent specimens but in reality are pedigreed freaks bred for speed who have extremely fragile and still developing bones that make them especially prone to what has happened to too many young horses. These
include Barbaro and Pine Island (above, left), who had to be euthanized after the 2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff race at Churchill when he suffered a dislocation of the left front fetlock.

If that weren't bad enough, there is an ongoing scandal off of the track. The New York Times reports that Steve Asmussen (above, right), Patrick Biancone (below, left) and sev
eral other Breeders Cup trainers have multiple and serious drug violations, and in fact of the top 10 American-based trainers in purse winnings this year, only one has never been cited for a medication violation.

It is part of an evolving culture in horse racing that ultimately rewards those who seek any means, legal and otherwise, to get an edge. When illegal drug use goes undetected, trainers walk away with the winnings and an enhanced reputation. But when they are caught, they are all too often handed punishments that are in name only. Their horses still run and their stables still operate, usually under the name of a trusted assistant.

It is long past time to go to the safer racing surfaces widely used in Europe and already adopted by many equestrian venues, and otherwise clean up thoroughbred racing. It is long past time to stop racing three-year-olds into early graves. And it is long past time to stop giving trainers wrist slaps for illegally drugging their horses.

But all of that is wishful thinking in a sport is awash with big money, outsized stud fees and enormous egos.

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