Eight Belles and Thousands More

After the filly Eight Belles suffered a fatal breakdown following her strong second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, there are plenty of questions floating around. Since when do racehorses break down after the race? (Never before, in anyone’s memory, by the way.) Could something have prevented this? Some folks are just asking themselves why they watched the race, or why we race horses to begin with. Is it moral to ask them to try so hard that they kill themselves doing it?

Horses and riders risk their lives in every equestrian sport. If you’ve ever signed the waivers at a guest ranch or riding stable, you understand this. There are injuries, horrors and abuses in all sorts of horse industries. (Many of them blogged about most excellently at Fugly Horse of the Day.) That said, there are too many catastrophic, life-ending breakdowns in American Thoroughbred racing.

We race our horses to find out which horse is best (something many a backyard breeder never bothers to do), and in doing it, we have produced over the centuries a remarkably athletic and courageous animal. Thoroughbred racing is not going away, even if you stay home from the track and turn off the television. By being an educated and concerned fan, however, you can help make the sport safer for the horses and humans involved. And there’s plenty to be concerned about.

Our tracks are harder, our races are faster, and the horses we breed are more fragile than those in Europe. We’re working to fix some of that with the installation of Polytracks and other synthetic tracks around the country. Someday the industry will get its act together and end the use of steroids and other race-day drugs. I’m not saying Eight Belles was doped (though I’d love to know what was in her bloodstream, in the interests of full disclosure). Painkillers help get unsound horses to post, where they hurt themselves worse. And years of breeding horses who may have raced on steroids or painkillers means that breeders have not had available to them the most honest phenotypic expression of the genes that each stallion and mare has to offer. And speaking of breeding, I hope that after yesterday, despite the beautiful race that Eight Belles ran, breeders will think long and hard about sending their mares to Unbridled’s Song. Unbridled’s Song’s own foot problems helped keep him from winning the Derby in 1996. He likely inherited his speed and unsoundness from his Derby-winning sire Unbridled, and passed both along to Eight Belles.

Big Brown, the Derby winner, has been plagued for the duration of his short career by bad hooves, probably a legacy of his heavy line-breeding (that’s the polite word for inbreeding) to the Native Dancer sire line, the same one from which the Unbridleds come. A Wall Street Journal article from the day before the race points out that every horse in the starting gate had Native Dancer somewhere in its pedigree. All of that Native Dancer in Big Brown’s pedigree (most via his grandson Northern Dancer) may well give him the speed to be a superstar, as this pedigree analyst suggests. It could even make him a potent sire of speed. It’s also virtually a guarantee that he will pass along those bad feet and dancer-delicate legs.

The Thoroughbred industry has shifted in recent decades. Once upon a time, horses made money by pounding out many races over the course of long careers. Nowadays, breeders make money by selling young horses. Pinhookers make money by buying young horses at auction, getting them looking really good, and reselling them as two year-olds in training. Three year-old stars are ushered off to the breeding shed before, God forbid, something happen to them, because they are both too valuable and too delicate to keep racing. The emphasis on good looking two-year-olds and success in those early, shorter races and pre-sale breezes is why our industry is failing to produce sound horses, and why it’s failed for thirty years to produce a horse good enough to stand up to the rigors of the Triple Crown campaign and finish the job by winning at a mile and a half in the Belmont. The test is not too hard; we’ve just lost sight of how to prepare and breed the animals to pass it.

The darkest and most unconscionable thing about the Thoroughbred industry, however, is not the horrific on-camera breakdowns or the short-sighted breeding. The death Eight Belles died was swift and humane compared to what thousands of washed-up ex-racehorses suffer each year in slaughterhouses, often after traveling hundreds of miles, standing in cramped conditions on their injured legs. Or their perfectly sound, serviceable, but not-quite-fast-enough legs. It’s not only Thoroughbred racehorses, of course, but I’m sensitive to the argument that if you can’t rescue them all (save through legislative action), the Thoroughbreds who risk so much for their billion-dollar industry should damned well be immune from dying that way. Reading about slaughter may be the final straw to turn some of you off of Thoroughbred racing forever, after yesterday’s terrible loss, but for those of us who love the Thoroughbred and the sport, it’s a call to keep pushing for changes, and to support the organizations that help former race-horses realize their potential off the track. I think that some of the best advocacy for treating these horses humanely and giving them a second chance is done by everyday owners. As they ride off to second careers as pleasure and show mounts, they show the world that they all deserve that chance.

A few excellent organizations that help Thoroughbreds:

  • ReRun – A nonprofit that has adoptable ex-racehorses in New Jersey, New York and Kentucky.
  • CANTER – A nonprofit that helps find second careers for racehorses in the East & Midwest.
  • Old Friends – A nonprofit that retires notable or at-risk racehorses to a beautiful farm in Kentucky, where you can visit them.
  • TB Friends – A ‘mom and pop’ organization dedicated to rescuing and re-homing in California. Joe buys from killbuyer’s feedlots, from auctions, and takes in donated horses direct from the racetrack.