Just after crossing the finish line at the Kentucky Derby earlier this month, a young filly named Eight Belles collapsed when both of her front ankles snapped. She was euthanized immediately, right where she lay. The push to win brought Eight Belles to her demise; most horse racing fans can agree with that. But who is to blame for her death? What has her death taught us about the industry of horse racing?
Eight Belles’ death has brought to light the fact that these thoroughbred horses are raced too young, before their bones have properly formed. They are pushed to run on hard surfaces that are tough on their joints and bones, like the track at Churchill Downs.
We have also learned that race horses are bred over generations for more speed and not for durability. The Dean of America’s racing writers, Andrew Beyer, wrote in the Washington Post: “Modern commercial breeders produce horses in order to sell them, and if those horses are unsound, they become somebody else’s problem. Because buyers want horses with speed, breeders have filled the thoroughbred species with the genes of fast but unsound horses.” Obviously, horses that win are more valuable than horses that don’t.
Aside from the issues of running at young age on hard surfaces and being overbred, some are blaming the jockey for Eight Belles’ death. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) believe that pain-masking drugs were used and excessive whipping pushed Eight Belles beyond her physical limits. They are calling on the racing industry to suspend the jockey, Gabriel Saez and trainer, Larry Jones and to bar the owner, Richard Porter, from racing at the track.
What about the spectators and those who bet on horse racing? Are they the ones who are pushing the industry to churn out horses who are pushed to their breaking point to make a profit? Even Hilary Clinton has been criticized for placing a bet on Eight Belles.
These animals are pushed to make a profit, so it’s reasonable to say that those who are profiting should share some of the blame. Just as animal welfare advocates reprimand those who raise and sell animals for their fur, the blame should also be on those who wear fur. If people didn’t buy, furriers would be out of business. In the multibillion dollar horse racing industry, if people didn’t bet, horses wouldn’t run and racing wouldn’t exist.
Although Eight Belles’ death, like Barbaro’s before hers, made headlines, countless lesser-known horses suffer similar fates; their broken legs and battered bodies are simply not made public. Horses can live to be 30 years old, but too many are bred for careers that last only four or five—or worse, they may have their lives ended as soon as the decision is made that they have no hope of becoming champions.
Whoever is to blame for Eight Belles’ death, there’s something we can do about preventing other horses from suffering a similar fate.
What You Can Do
Ask your elected officials to take action to investigate the horse racing industry’s dark side by calling for hearings right now on the following issues:
1. Delay training and racing until after a horse’s third birthday. Before reaching this age, the animals’ legs are not fully developed, which increases the chances for injury.
2. Eliminate racing on dirt surfaces. Synthetic track surfaces are safer for horses and have led to dramatic decreases in breakdowns.
3. Limit the number of races per season. Even Triple Crown racers who have light schedules leading up the Derby break down under the strain. Horses who race on smaller tracks are often run so frequently that strains and breaks are inevitable.
4. Create a National Racing Commission so there is one over-arching governing body responsible for the welfare of the animals and for setting a level playing field for the competitors.
California Legislators Contact Info
Senator Barbara Boxer, boxer.senate.gov/contact
Senator Dianne Feinstein, feinstein.senate.gov
Representative Lois Capps, house.gov/capps/contact/