Can Big Brown Save Horse Racing?

Pro Football NYCSenior Writer IJune 2, 2008

In 1973, the great Secretariat ran away with America’s imagination by dominating his opponents en route to capturing Horse Racing’s first Triple Crown in a quarter-century.

Seattle Slew gracefully glided his way to Triple Crown glory in 1977.  A year later, young Stevie Cauthen captured the sport’s last crowning achievement aboard Affirmed, who out dueled the game Alydar and his rider, Jorge Velasquez creating the ‘exact exacta’, finishing 1-2 in all three races.  

Thoroughbred Horse Racing was at its peak.

It has been 30 years since there has been a Triple Crown winner.  Over that period, 10 horses have captured the first two jewels of the Crown at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, but all failed to finish first in the grueling mile-and-a-half long Belmont Stakes.  

Big Brown is 11th horse to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness since 1979.  As we look forward to this Saturday’s Belmont, the question looms:

Can he do it?

The bigger question looming, however, is Can Big Brown Save Horse Racing?

The Sport of Kings has been increasingly under siege the past few years.  There have been questions about animal cruelty and drug abuse.  In the wake of the Michael Vick case, animal rights activists are asking the hard questions of the horse racing industry that they asked of the animal fighting circuits.  Why isn’t horse racing held to the same standards as dog- or cockfighting?

HBO Sports’ "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" ran an expose on the fates of thoroughbred horses whose fortunes have dwindled.  When trainers feel a horse no longer has value to them, they are ‘farmed out’.

That means they could end up anywhere. Many are sold to ‘meat men’ who slaughter the animals in brutal fashion and ship the meat to places such as Japan, where horsemeat is a delicacy.  

Then there is the question of training and care.  Many are beginning to question whether 3-year-olds are ready for such demanding tasks.

Barbaro broke down in the Preakness two years ago. A less expensive horse would have been euthanized soon after such a severe leg injury. He was given a reprieve when veterinarians employed revolutionary procedures to help him recover.  

Barbaro’s struggle to regain his health was watched with vigilance by the whole nation.  When he was able to stand and walk again it was like a scene out of the film Seabiscuit.   But this story would have a sad ending. Barbaro developed laminitis in several hoofs and could not be saved. He was euthanized in January 2007.

The emotional roller coaster following his recovery cloaked some of the real issues.  With full recovery such a longshot, why was this horse subjected to so many surgical procedures and put through the ringer when he was going to have to be put down anyway?  Was it to collect sperm for breeding purposes?  

This is a business, after all.

In this year’s Kentucky Derby, the filly Eight Belles collapsed after the finish line with two broken front ankles.  She was euthanized right on the track in front of the whole world.

These events have led activist groups such as PETA to summon the U.S. House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection to call for hearings on the breeding, safety and treatment of horses.  The hearings will take place sometime this month.

As for Big Brown, a win Saturday can go long way to helping his handlers and the like in maintaining the status of their sport.  But the wheels of counterinsurgency have been turning against them as fast and furious as a stretch run.

Last week, it was discovered that Big Brown had a quarter crack in his front left hoof.  This was nothing new to the horse and his trainer, Rick Dutrow.  Big Brown had a more severe injury to a hoof last year and was shut down. 

A hoof specialist was brought in and the crack has been mended. The horse will still have to wear a patch on the hoof on race day.  But there is always a question when a horse has any type of crack in his hoof.  

If this next race were not for the Triple Crown, would Big Brown be risked?

This week, the issue of drug and steroid use in horse racing took its turn in the winner’s circle.  Most of the trainers who have entries in the Belmont, including Dutrow, said their horses would be using steroids this week. They are legal in New York. There are four that are commonly used, but it is suspected that substances not on the list have crept into barns over time.

So Big Brown will enter the gate at Belmont a heavy favorite on Saturday.  He will have the eyes of not only the horse racing world on him, but the eyes of all America.  With a win he can hopefully put aside all of the questions for at least a moment.   Never has there been more at stake in a single horse race.

published from American Blogger