EIGHT BELLES' DEATH SHOWS DARK SIDE OF HORSE RACING
by, Michael Rosenberg
Well, I don't know about you, but I sure won't watch the Preakness the same way now. Big Brown will go for the second leg of the Triple Crown, but my thoughts will be with the filly who should be challenging him.
Eight Belles is dead. She broke two ankles after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, and since horses can't live after that kind of injury (for various reasons), she was euthanized on the track.
Eight Belles is dead. It is strangely appropriate that the second-place finisher is the one who died.
If Big Brown had broken his ankles after winning, he would have been the biggest story in America this morning. There would be many calls to rethink the sport of horse racing. There would be a national conversation about whether horse racing is a worthy sporting endeavor or unfit for a civilized society.
If a horse had broken his ankles after finishing last, it would have been one paragraph in newspaper stories — a footnote. Fans would not have paid much attention, because it would be easy to separate the death from the reason we watch the Kentucky Derby — to see who wins.
But when the second-place finisher breaks down and must be euthanized on the track, it becomes a nasty little thought that you can't get out of your head. You might just find yourself blocking it out and concentrating on the winner, but that will only bring guilt.
Why? Why do we put racehorses at risk for our own amusement? Where do we draw the line? I have done zero polling on this issue, but I suspect most people would agree with this statement:
It's OK to train horses to race but not OK to train dogs to fight, because the frequency of death and pain is much lower in horse racing.
Heck, that's how I have long felt. But what is an acceptable fatality rate? If Churchill Downs goes to an increasingly popular synthetic racing surface, which is believed to reduce injuries, will we feel better because we're doing something?
According to The New York Times, "Dr. Mary Scollay, a veterinarian at Calder Race Course, organized an equine injury reporting system for more than 30 tracks and has found that fatality rates have been lower on synthetic surfaces: 1.47 fatalities per 1,000 starts for synthetic surfaces against 2.03 per 1,000 for dirt tracks."
This is not just about horse racing. It cuts to the heart of our relationship with animals. It is a relationship that, for most of us, is steeped in denial.
Hunters love deer but also love to kill them. Chick-Fil-A cannily uses a cow as its spokesman — eat some chicken and you'll save the big lug. The quintessential American scene is the backyard barbecue, with slices of cow on the grill and the family dog playing catch. I'm not judging — I have two cats and eat meat. But try making sense of any of this.
Last summer, I joined most of the Western world in excoriating Michael Vick for his dogfighting operation. My feelings on Vick haven't changed. But I wonder, more than ever, about the level of outrage. Did we call Vick a thug so we would feel superior?
There is only one other major sport where we understand that the participants are risking death. That, of course, is auto racing, and it brings its own brand of denial. While we subconsciously tell ourselves that racehorses are just animals, we also tell ourselves that race car drivers have a choice. They don't have to race. They choose to. It is a risk they are willing to take, and it seems almost un-American to try to stop them.
With horse racing, we pretend that it is perfectly normal for a horse to sprint 1¼ miles down a track with a jockey on her back and a whip in the jockey's hand.
In our minds, racehorses fall somewhere between Michael Vick's dogs and our own pets. They are there to entertain, but we fall in love with the best of them.
And when Barbaro or Eight Belles dies, we tell ourselves that nothing could have been done. The truth is that if nothing had been done, if no race had been held, then those horses would have lived.
We don't like to admit that. We'd prefer to think that these deaths are part of life instead of just a part of racing. We say that Eight Belles was "euthanized," as though we did her a favor.
But on the official Web site of the Kentucky Derby, the death of Eight Belles was neatly squeezed into a single sentence, in the fifth paragraph of a story about Big Brown's historic win.