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Horse Euthanasia Raises Questions After Kentucky Derby

May 5, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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This year's Kentucky Derby was marred by the events following the filly Eight Belles' second place finish when she collapsed on the track and was subsequently euthanized. Two experts discuss the state of horse racing and the extremes to which owners must go to win.

JEFFREY BROWN: A thrilling Run for the Roses Saturday took a horrific turn just seconds after the colt called Big Brown galloped to victory at the 134th Kentucky Derby.

Eight Belles, a filly who placed second, ahead of eighteen other horses, collapsed soon after finishing. She had shattered both of her front ankles. Moments later, before a crowd of over 150,000, Eight Belles was euthanized.

Churchill Downs veterinarian, Dr. Larry Bramlage, said there was no other option.

LARRY BRAMLAGE, Churchill Downs Veterinarian: She didn’t have a front leg to stand on to be splinted and hauled off in the ambulance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Her death and the pall cast over horse racing’s biggest day have sparked calls for an examination of the breeding and racing conditions for thoroughbreds. Widely-reported statistics estimate that there are one-and-a-half breakdowns for every 1,000 racing starts.

ESPN columnist Pat Forde:

PAT FORDE, ESPN Columnist: American breeding has become more and more of a speed-based dynamic. And it’s become a little bit more inbred and inbred. And they’re breeding frailties and infirmities into the horses over and over again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Larry Jones trained Eight Belles.

LARRY JONES, Trained Eight Belles: These things are our family, you know. We have put everything into them that we have had and they have given us everything that they have. They put their life on the damn line here, and she was glad to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The breakdown of Eight Belles was not the only injury at Churchill Downs this past weekend. A four-year-old called Chelokee, racing here last year, broke a front ankle during Friday’s Alysheba Stakes. Chelokee is seen here at left riderless and still running after bucking his jockey. He is given a 50 percent chance of survival.

Chelokee’s trainer also trained Barbaro, the 2006 Derby winner. Barbaro broke a hind leg right out of the gate at the Preakness just two weeks after a dominant Derby victory.

After many attempts to repair his injury, Barbaro was euthanized in early 2007. It is now known that Eight Belles and Barbaro were directly related by bloodlines. With the injury and death of Eight Belles on Saturday, two of the last six Triple Crown races have seen breakdowns by high-profile horses.

Troubles seen after the derby

JEFFREY BROWN: And more now from two sportswriters who watched and wrote about the Kentucky Derby this weekend. Andrew Beyer focuses on horse racing as a columnist for The Washington Post. William Rhoden writes about the wider world of sports as a columnist for The New York Times.

Well Mr. Beyer, do you look at what happened this we can end as a freak accident or as something that speaks to a larger problem?

ANDREW BEYER, The Washington Post: Well, both.

It's a little bit of an anomaly, in the sense that horses aren't breaking down every day on American racetracks. I mean, there hadn't been a fatal breakdown in the Kentucky Derby in 75 years. But to have two out of the last six Triple Crown races with fatalities is clearly a big issue.

But it's -- you know, it is a little bit of a freakish bit of timing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Rhoden, you took a much harsher view of this in your column this weekend. What do you see? How do you see it?

WILLIAM RHODEN, The New York Times: Yes, I just think that it's a little more than anomaly.

I think that it's time that we look at this horse racing business as almost in the -- under the rubric of animal cruelty. And it really is. And I understand that that is a big thing for a lot of people to change. We have been dealing with horse racing since the 17th century in this country.

And it has sort of got a special place in our hearts. But look at it. It's almost like greyhound racing. And, you know, you see these things. I was at the Preakness with Barbaro. And it is not just the events that happen on the big screen. We're talking about -- what about the horses that die these sort of anonymous deaths at these anonymous tracks around the country?

And I think everybody will admit that the cruelty perhaps is in the breeding. But, however we come down on this, I think that we have to change the way we look at this industry, and we do have to put it under the realm of cruelty to animals.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Beyer, animal cruelty.

ANDREW BEYER: Well, that is the -- that is the sort of statement I might expect from kind of animal rights extremists, not from The New York Times. I thought their Sunday sports section, that -- where Bill's column described the sort as barbaric and inhumane, was a little over the top.

The people in racing love these horses. They take good care of them. But, I mean, it is a sport that involves risks. And, you know, unfortunately, the American horse is just not as durable as it used to be.

Fragility of fast horses is known

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you about that.

First, let me ask Mr. Beyer a question about breeding, because Mr. Rhoden brought it up.

Are the horses more fragile today because of the breeding?

ANDREW BEYER: Absolutely. I mean, the statistics are there.

In 1970, the average American horse made 10 -- about 10 starts per year. It's now down to six -- or a little over six a year. And it's just because the breed is frailer. Breeders have put much less of an emphasis on durability and soundness as they used to. And they're putting just a preponderant emphasis on speed. And they don't care if the horses that they are breeding to may pass infirmities on to the next generation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Rhoden, that is part of the problem you have.

WILLIAM RHODEN: That sounds a lot like cruelty to me. I don't know how you cut it.

And I don't think you have to be an expert to know what you see. And I think the problem, Andy, and people who are defend this, you are becoming too close to this industry. And you can't really see what is going on and see that there is really a need to change the way we look at this.

And when you talk about animal cruelty, you tell me why this isn't like greyhound racing. I mean, you tell me that. Why isn't this like greyhound racing? Tell me why shouldn't this be on the level of cruelty, if you know that these animals are being -- are becoming more fragile and more fragile and more fragile, and yet you keep putting them under this type of stress and these -- you tell me why is that isn't cruel.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, go ahead.

ANDREW BEYER: Well, there are -- contestants in any sport can get hurt or get killed. I mean, I suppose you have advocated the abolition of boxing, too? I mean, how about the...

WILLIAM RHODEN: Andy, those people volunteer. Those people volunteer, Andy. Boxers volunteer. Football players volunteer. Baseball players volunteer to get in front of a 100-mile -- these animals aren't volunteering. I don't care how you tell me about...

They did not volunteer for this.

ANDREW BEYER: This is why they exist. This is what they were bred to do. It is not like someone grabbed them from a field and said, you are going to be a racehorse. They have been bred for three centuries to run.

Solving the core problem

JEFFREY BROWN: After Barbaro, there was a movement -- and there has been a movement in recent years -- towards artificial track, at least in some areas, not at the Derby and not other places.

Where does that -- what -- is there evidence yet about the relative safety of artificial vs. dirt and other tracks?

ANDREW BEYER: The jury is still out. They may be -- they may be somewhat safer.

But that's not the -- you know, that's not the core of the problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see?

ANDREW BEYER: I mean, horses were -- horses were running on dirt tracks, you know, 40 years ago. And nobody, you know, was observing, you know, numerous breakdowns.

I mean, the tracks are probably better maintained today. So, I mean, it's -- it is not the surface that's causing these problems.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what do you -- what is the core of the problem for you?

ANDREW BEYER: Well, we talked about breeding. And the other thing, I think, is medication.

I mean, since the -- since the 1970s, the United States has been like the one major racing jurisdiction in the world that has allowed freewheeling use of painkillers and other medications, which have done two things. Let's go -- horses go on to the track without feeling pain. And they are more susceptible to breakdown.

And, secondly, horses win races with the aid of medication, go to stud, and then they propagate descendants who carry on the same infirmities and then worse. I think that's, you know, a key part of this whole problem.


WILLIAM RHODEN: That sounds to me, once again, like a wanton disregard for the health of animals, which sounds to me like cruelty.

And it sounds to me that we really need to change the way we perceive this industry, because it has received a free pass.


WILLIAM RHODEN: I just think that there is no -- there is no question about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what would you like to see happen? What are you advocating?

WILLIAM RHODEN: I think that, number one, you can't change the essence of the sport, no more than you could change equipment and change the essence of football. It is inherently a violent sport.

This sport, no matter how you cut it, is really hard on horses. It grinds up horses. Maybe we could change the age of the horses, push it up from 3 to 4. And, unfortunately -- and I think that is what Andy was saying -- there is really nothing you can do to change the essence of it.

But I think that what the public can do, the viewing public can begin to be as disturbed about this sport as they are about greyhound racing.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think?

ANDREW BEYER: Well, the one thing that can be changed are the medication rules, because the United States is alone in allowing, you know, this widespread use of medication.

I mean, the -- the people -- people in other major racing countries, I mean, England, Japan, Australia, are not having discussions like the one we're having here tonight. They do not have this sort of epidemic of, you know, of breakdowns or these infirmities in their horses, like we do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that being discussed now in the racing community?

Addicted to horse racing

ANDREW BEYER: I think the American racing community is, like, addicted to the use of drugs. They -- I don't think trainers would know how to train without them.



WILLIAM RHODEN: That industry is in denial. It really is in denial.

I mean, when you listen to Andy talk, I mean, everything that he says so far about the drugs, about the breakdowns, about how the United States is peculiar, all this, to me, talks about an industry that is in denial. And the sport, as a result of that, has become brutal.

And I know that you said it is over the top. But what people saw on Saturday, Andy -- and I don't know if you want to call that over the top, but I know there are some owners, owners, who are heartbroken.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to -- I should say that we invited representatives from the industry, and they weren't able to join us.

But, Mr. Rhoden, you are a student of the sporting public, as well as the industry. There was also a triumph on Saturday. There was -- Big Brown won a big race. Now there is talk about him possibly winning the Triple Crown. That hasn't happened in a long time.

Do you expect the public to now focus on that over the next couple of weeks, as these races come? Is that where our attention will turn?

WILLIAM RHODEN: Yes, absolutely.

I mean, as much as I have sort of talked about the morality of the sport and brutality, the fact is that, if Big Brown wins a couple weeks from now in Baltimore, and now we have the specter of a Triple Crown winner, sure.

The way the public is in this country, we love winners. We love history. And, frankly, as a journalist, as a writer who loves history as well and the tremendous moments, I will look at the tremendous moment, and look forward to it.

But, at the same time, I guess that what we do as journalists and as columnists, we have to -- we have to look at a number of things simultaneously. And, also, I think that we really have to change -- in addition to cheering Big Brown, we also have to say, this is an industry that really needs to check itself, that really needs reform.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, well, we have -- briefly, this may be the one place where you agree.

ANDREW BEYER: Yes. I wish I could share Bill's optimism about the public reaction.

I think a lot of people, millions of people who watched, who just watch the Triple Crown races may be just so turned off by what they saw Saturday, they are not going to care about a Triple Crown.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Andrew Beyer and William Rhoden, thank you both very much.