Saturday, May 03, 2008
The Kentucky Derby: They Kill Horses, Don't They
The predictable romantic press twaddle and television rhapsodizing accompanied the running of the Kentucky Derby today.
But as the squadrons of private jets take off from Louisville to disperse the well-heeled fans back home, again the ugly truth about three-year-old thoroughbred racing (and breeding) is glossed over, because it doesn't comport with the media narrative and the commercial interests intertwined with it.
The horse that finished second, a filly named Eight Belles, broke down after the finish line -- compound fractures in two ankles -- and had to be killed (let's avoid the word "euthanized") on the track.
Presumably, the 157,000 party-goers in attendance collectively averted their eyes.
Without doubt, the craven NBC TV sports announcers at Churchill Downs did so. Even after the winning horse spooked at the collapsed Eight Belles and threw his jockey on the track, the NBC announcers prattled on merrily, ignoring the obvious until they were forced to acknowledge it briefly before moving back onto narrative and the winner's circle palaver.
Anyone who knows horses knows that that filly probably ran at least a few furlongs of that race on at least one fractured leg. It was in her nature not to quit.
These horses are far too delicately bred to start with -- and most of them are babies, not chronologically three years old, when they're forced into intensely competitive racing. Their bones and muscles are still not fully developed.
All they know is to run like hell. Which they do, with magnificence.
These horses are still too young, in early May of their second year, to race in a dense pack in the kind of intense conditions demanded at Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Derby might be a great party and spectacle, but it's an animal-welfare ethical disgrace, as is the entire Triple Crown and thoroughred-breeding apparatus.
There's nothing wrong with racing fully grown horses, assuming the horse knows what the deal is and goes along. Horses love to run. They even love to run with someone on their backs. But two-and-a-half years -- which is how old these horses actually are -- is too early to run them at that level, under those conditions. They need another year or more to develop, and even then they're still young and overbred.
Sports writers spend an awful lot of time flapping around about things like steroid use in baseball. It's time they started questioning assumptions about the races of the Triple Crown and the systemic animal abuse -- much of which occurs long before the dewey-eyed fans warble the atrocious "My Old Kentucky Home" at Churchill Downs -- that's behind all that excitement.
Most sports writers, of course, are known for this: Writing the same crap over and over, till the last syllable of recorded time, while stuffing themselves with free shrimp in the press lounge.
In Sunday's New York Daily News, then, we have this unconscionable passage quoting the dead horse's trainer, Larry Jones:
"Trainer Larry Jones said, 'She went out in a blaze of glory,' as he tried to hold back tears from his reddening eyes.
Sorry to hear of the trainer's reddening eyes. But she did not go out in a "blaze of glory." She is a horse. She went out in hideous pain, unable to understand why her legs gave out when all she was doing was running like hell. She went out in the back of a truck.
Are they going to bring out any more shrimp, do you think?
It is time to say enough.
"How many times do we have to see this?" said my wife Nancy, who knows horses. She said this: Racing raw, so-called three-year-olds in an arena massed with bellowing people and startling visual impressions, within a pack of horses that don't know each other -- the field is not a natural herd; it's a hastily assembled mob -- is simply "preying on their instincts to flee."
In the Washington Post, Sally Jenkins has it just right.
In the Times, William C. Rhoden's Sunday column also gets it. "The sport is at least as inhumane as greyhound racing and only a couple of steps removed from animal fighting," Rhoden says. "This is bullfighting."
But these are two lonely voices against the prevailing media-trumpet chorale of glorious tragedy: The brave filly who wouldn't quit, who ran on through shattering pain and managed to place in parimutuel paradise.
Can't you hear the stirring theme music?
Meanwhile, Chelokee, the colt who was badly injured just yesterday in Alysheba Stakes during the Kentucky Oaks races at Churchill Downs, was battling for survival.
Chelokee was trained by Michael Matz, who also trained Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner. Barbaro, you'll recall, shattered his leg two weeks later in the second 2006 Triple Crown race, the Preakness, and eventually had to be put down.
And these, remember, are just the famous horses that make the news.
Except, of course, on NBC.