Death at The Kentucky Derby: Eight Belles Tolls for Thoroughbred Racing
The time has come for the "Sport of Kings" to realize its place in the American sports lexicon.
A spectator sport that needs to pass into the history books and join other barbaric and greedy spectator pastimes that employ animals for amusement. There is, and has been for some time now, little difference between horse racing and cock fights, bull fighting and dog racing.
Each erroneously labeled sport is based on the same premise. Animals that have no say in the matter other than to please their masters. These same magnificent athletic creatures performing as any circus animal would for treats and, in many cases, faux affection. Animals that while they may have cost someone a pretty penny are nothing more than disposable flesh should they fail to return on their investment.
Thoroughbred horse racing was once a major sport in this country, well before the days of pay-per-view, 24-hour sports networks and fantasy leagues for everything from marbles to motor sports. Before live carnival style broadcasts which allowed for every flaw and foible to be magnified.
But horse racing today is a dying sport, on a day-to-day basis at tracks and OTB parlors across the country followed and wagered on only by a sordid mix of degenerate gamblers and cigar-chewing nonagenarians who have little more than this as their main source of entertainment. It is sad and even pathetic to walk around the concourse at many a race track and try to imagine what was once a civilized industry that has for years now wallowed in mediocrity and perpetual avarice.
I speak from experience, having covered the Triple Crown from barns to the Winners Circle. These are the showcase events, where an international audience gets to see the sport at it's finest. Dressed in colorful hats, replete with celebrity red carpets, and of course presenting their young athletes as those who are cared for with white glove efficiency. Receiving nothing but affection and attention, as they "love to run and show off for the adoring crowds". They were "born to race, bred to be champions", and have it in their respective hearts and souls to flash by the grandstand in a blaze of equestrian excellence.
What is not shown at these events, and rarely if ever witnessed by even those who crowd the grandstands or tune in for those exciting 2 minutes, is the dark and tragic side of a sport featuring truly disposable heroes.
Even those who make their living in this industry are keenly yet often silently aware of the slaughter that takes place on a stunning level. It was only 5 years ago that over 40,000 horses were slaughtered in this country. To be sure, not all of these were thoroughbreds. Investigators cannot get a handle on the exact number because, as one might guess, the industry would rather numbers such as these remain private and hazy at best.
It should also be pointed out that not every thoroughbred owner treats their animals as little more than overseas dog food once their productive days are over. There are many doing whatever they can to insure these proud and prideful animals are neither abused nor slaughtered. The ones who genuinely love their animals and treat them as much more than an investment. They are gaining in number, but are still overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of horses killed because they couldn't turn a profit.
Perhaps those who think of the sport as such a grand example of the animal spirit would see it differently were they to watch a Kentucky Derby and hear the announcers tell the story in a truly dispassionate manner. No coddling the audience. No insuring the network contract would remain in it's lucrative place for next year. But a simple stated, non-eloquent description.
Eight Belles crossed the finish line second at the Derby, a rousing story for the only filly in the race. Seconds later, both her front legs shattered into millions of tiny pieces in front of those counting their winnings and others calling for the defeated to be turned into glue or some other cheap substance.
There was not a single soul who has ever been connected in any manner with horses or racing that didn't know what would come next. Injuries such as these can never be repaired. We were told by various announcers on TV and radio that Eight Belles had to be "put down", "humanely treated for her wounds", or "euthanized".
It was certainly humane, as there are those medical professionals connected with the sport who realize the abject pain these animals are under when such an injury occurs. They race to the scene and without a second thought administer a life-ending shot that kills the horse in seconds. They are to be commended for their attempts to treat the animal with dignity in it's dying moments.
But in the end, the horse was killed. Put out of it's misery. Ending what has to be incredible pain and suffering. In days past they would do the same thing with a bullet to the brain.Now they bring out the trailer, put a tarp up around the animal so no one from the grandstand or the TV audience can see, administered the killing shot and then load the carcass onto a flatbed for disposition. Nice and tidy. No muss, no fuss, no blood. Nothing to see here.
Trainer Larry Jones and owner Rick Porter made the decision to run Eight Belles despite her being the only filly in the race and NEVER having raced against colts before. This was treated in the days and minutes leading up to the race as the lady against the big boys, with one fellow trainer even joking on national radio that he hoped his horse didn't get too amorous with her during the race.
However, Larry Jones & Rick Porter should be seen as nothing more than greedy opportunists looking to ride the back, and the legs, of his inexperienced and possibly highly over matched filly. Jones won the Kentucky Oaks on Friday and being the trainer of a Derby winning horse would make him one of the few to win those 2 races on the same weekend. History for the man, oats for the animal. Instead, a tax write-off for the owner and a chance to buy yet another horse at auction to take Eight Belles place. Greed at it's worst.
There are those who will counter and point to the fact Eight Belles finished second in the Derby and could have won. But at what cost? What did that effort take out of her? We'll never know. She couldn't talk. Couldn't say no. Couldn't stop running at any point in the race because all she was ever taught to do was to please her masters. And now Eight Belles is dead for doing just that.
I have been close to handlers, trainers, owners, and many others in the thoroughbred industry. I have seen those who treat their animals with care and respect. The people who get little or no attention for their efforts to see these animals cared for as something more than money on the hoof. Too often, however, they are the little guys and gals who never sniff a whiff of places like Churchill Downs. Many of whom get out of the business because they simply cannot bear mute witness to the tragic way these animals are sometimes treated.
But I also have seen and know the other side of this industry. The horses that are shot up with enough drugs to keep them happy and running if there were bear traps snapped onto each leg. The fetid and filthy stalls they are given to call home. The crack of a more than one whip for those who can't make the grade on track. The execution and dumping of bodies either into a landfill hole or chopped up to be sold for animal food, fertilizer, and sometimes even winding up as additives for your dinner table.
These are wonderful creatures who will indeed run their heart out for an owner or trainer. They live to please as so many other animals do. We humanize them by noting how they love to play for a crowd and have their picture taken. We grieve for them when they fall victim to disease. We make pilgrimages to their grave sites in order to mourn their passing.
But only for a very, very select few. Barbaro's death was tragic, but what followed bordered on the ludicrous. He was painted by the media as a symbol of what it meant to be a true champion. To this day there are those who will tell you under hushed breath it was all a wonderfully choreographed media campaign by the thoroughbred industry, desperate to use his death as a way to show people the caring side of their sport and bring them back to the betting windows once again.
Does anyone remember the tale of Ferdinand? Winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby. Winner of the 1987 Breeders Cup. A failure at stud, which meant he was no longer of any monetary value to his owners. Sold to a group in Japan, we learned in 2002 that Ferdinand was executed there and sent to a slaughterhouse.
No longer a money maker. Couldn't turn out future champions for owners to line their pockets with. Good for nothing save for the butcher block.
These animals are used for nothing more than making money by some who reside in a dark and wretched corner of society, knowing full well they can buy them, race them, abuse them, and kill them without a second thought. Those used as speed horses to make the more talented colts with a higher investment tag run even faster, and can be disposed of with a minimal dollar loss. The colts and fillies bought for short prices but fail to make good on the owners dollar. Then taken away and sold for a profit to other countries where horse flesh is a delicacy. The colt standing to stud who fails to sire possible winners and has a battery attached to his genitals until dropping dead. Don't waste the cost of a bullet on that nag.
I have personally seen each and every one of these scenarios take place. I made a mistake by not saying something then. I won't make the same mistake twice.
The time has come to bid an overdue farewell to horse racing in this country. It serves no purpose than to create an easy and disposable way for the wealthy to play with their money. For gamblers to have something else when the blackjack tables are closed. The beauty and pageantry of the sport are often mere facades to keep one from seeing what really goes on in some of the more unscrupulous barns and paddocks across the country. The sport, in it's current form, properly continues to lose fans, interest, and credibility.
And would lose many more if people only wanted to know the truth.
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