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15 June 2008

OPINION: Death and the Sport of Kings

As a child, as the daughter of two people who adored horses but did not own them, I loved horses and I knew about Man O'War, War Admiral, Seabiscuit (before the recent movie) and Tom Fool.

I knew what the Triple Crown was and each year I followed the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. I read books that were romantic sports fantasies about racing, the nobility of the horse and the will to win.

Yet eventually, the numbers caught up with me. First, I worked for a man who went to the races, knew nothing about horses, belittled the jockeys as athletes and didn't particularly like horses. Horse racing was no different to him than gambling in Vegas. Living at home and not paying rent (he was in this thirties at the time), he could easily drop a few hundred.

The other numbers would be how many horses does a stable need to have to race each year and turn a profit and if the prime racing years are 3-5 and horses live into their twenties what happens to the has-beens and never were? I already knew what happened to the greyhounds that didn't make the grade at the track in Tijuana. If rescue organizations couldn't save and finds homes for all of the dogs raced in Mexico and the U.S., why would one think we could save all the horses who had been bred to race and never ran; ran but didn't place; placed but couldn't bring stud fees; or raced and were no longer wanted?

There was also that questionable decision to race Majestic Prince who had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 1969. He was initially withdrawn due to injury and then despite the objections of his trainer, Johnny Longden, he was re-entered. He never raced again although he finished second.

He retired to a stud farm.

A recent New York Times article noted that in the past five years, 3,035 racing horses haved died at racing facilities. This isn't limited to thoroughbreds, but also includes standardbreds and quarter horses.

The statistics, part of a hearing about "Breeding, Drugs and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Racine and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred Racehorse" given before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, are not complete.

An Associated Press report noted the figures they used were drawn from open records inquiries sent to organizations governing the sport in 29 states.

According to the article, Arkansas, Michigan and Nebraska didn't keep records at all. Only one of Florida's three main tracks provided information.

Another concern is that despite advances in medical science, the numbers aren't dropping.

Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., who made the grim announcement that Eight Belles had been euthanized after the Derby, said fatality numbers don't seem to be dropping, despite major medical advancements. To Bramlage, that suggests racing injuries are becoming more frequent because vets are already pulling the most injury-prone horses before post time.

"We're able to pick them up better, with digital X-rays, bone scans and MRIs, which give us the information we need to take those horses out of training," Bramlage said. "In spite of that fact, we're not denting the total number of deaths."

After the televised injuries of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro in 2006 at the Preakness and the breakdown of Eight Bells at the Kentucky Derby this year, the sport has come under scrutiny. Previously, concern had been so low that some tracks didn't keep records at all.

New Mexico has no records prior to 2007. Others do not track morning training deaths or differentiate between breeds and cause of death.

What these studies do not yet touch on is quality of life after the race is over. The 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand was named the 1987 Horse of the Year (Eclipse Award). In 2002, he was sent to a slaughter house.

Less famous horses are often given to charities such as the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundations, ReRun Inc., , California Equine Retirement Foundation, Inc. among many others.

Perhaps racing was called the sport of kings because racehorses, like the foot soldiers, the peasants and the knights were expendable as long as the king won. Unlike dogs or cats or rabbits, horses cannot in today's world be easily disposed of, but the public has turned a blind eye to this, even when the numbers didn't add up.

I no longer think of horse racing or dog racing as a sport. Instead it seems an excuse to gamble and exploit animals as if they weren't sentient beings with a purpose and use beyond winning a bet in a few minute rush to a wire.

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