They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Triple Crown Edition)

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Today a brave filly died at Churchill Downs. Eight Belles was the only one of a huge field of twenty to break from the pack in the homestretch of the Kentucky Derby and attempt to run down the hard charging winner, Big Brown. She collapsed almost immediately after crossing the finish line, both ankles broken, and was euthanized. Unlike Barbaro, who suffered an ultimately fatal leg break in the Preakness in 2006, she had the good taste to collapse off camera, so her death is unlikely to get the national interest his did.

Yet this level of tragic deaths at the very top tier of this sport says something is badly wrong. The industry has long been cavalier about injury, despite the expense of breeding and training racehorses. Being a jockey is one of the most dangerous professions. Every professional jockey has taken a bad fall in a race; it’s unavoidable given that the riders do not sit their mounts but are really perched above them, and horses are bumped, stumble, and fall. Paralysis and death are not uncommon.

So given how badly the human athletes in racing are treated, it isn’t surprising that the horses don’t fare much better. Thoroughbreds don’t reach full maturity until they are four, but they start racing as two year olds, which some believe increases the odds of injury. I’ve also had my doubts about how they are trained, since horses in the wild move about all day, while racehorses are kept in their stalls except for their daily workouts, which are very short. This unnatural activity, torpor interrupted by intense training, may also set them up for breaks and sprains.

Two essays in the Times today take the industry to task, and William Rhoaden comes close to the mark:

Why do we keep giving thoroughbred horse racing a pass? Is it the tradition? The millions upon millions invested in the betting?

Why isn’t there more pressure to put the sport of kings under the umbrella of animal cruelty?

The sport is at least as inhumane as greyhound racing and only a couple of steps removed from animal fighting.

Is it the fact that horse racing is imbedded in the American fabric? And the Triple Crown is a nationally televised spectacle? Or is it the fact that death on the track is rarely seen by a mainstream television audience?

The sentiment was summed up by Dr. Larry Bramlage on Saturday when, asked about fillies racing against colts, he said, “One death is not an epidemic.”

But this isn’t about one death. This is about the nature of a sport that routinely grinds up young horses.

A national audience was exposed to the bittersweet experience of a tremendous victory by Big Brown and — moments later — the stunning news that Eight Belles had been euthanized. As we watched Big Brown’s owner celebrate the unmitigated joy of winning the Derby, we watched Bramlage describe the details of Eight Belles’s horrible death: She had completed the race, finishing a heroic second to Big Brown. She was around the turn at the start of the backstretch when her front ankles collapsed.

Bramlage described the sickening image of what had happened: a condylar fracture on the left side and the left front that opened the skin, went through it and was contaminated.

“She didn’t have a front leg to stand on to be splinted and hauled off in the ambulance, so she was immediately euthanized,” Bramlage said.

And that was that.

After the race, Larry Jones, Eight Belles’s trainer, choked back tears as he answered questions about the filly’s death. But even through the grief, Jones instinctively toed the industry line about racing. He discounted the notion — and veiled criticism — that the dirt surface might have contributed to her death. He also refused to concede the point that horse racing is an extremely dangerous sport, saying that these types of injuries occur in any sport.

Within the racing industry, Eight Belles was a tragic but glorious casualty. The industry is in denial: racing grinds up horses, and we dress up the sport with large hats, mint juleps and string bands.

Why do we refuse to put the brutal game of racing in the realm of mistreatment of animals? At what point do we at least raise the question about the efficacy of thousand-pound horses racing at full throttle on spindly legs?

This is bullfighting.

Eight Belles was another victim of a brutal sport that is carried, literally, on the backs of horses. Horsemen like to talk about their thoroughbreds and how they were born to run and live to run. The reality is that they are made to run, forced to run for profits they never see.

On Saturday, it was Eight Belles in Louisville. Two years ago, it was Barbaro in Baltimore, with a misstep at the Preakness. And who knows how many horses die anonymous deaths? Eight Belles, we’ll write, was merely the casualty of a brutal game.

But one death is too many. The miracle of the sport of kings is that there aren’t more. But how many more do we need?

Jane Smiley notes that Eight Belles may have been predisposed to push too hard, but to my mind, that is not a sufficient excuse:

I have a friend who trains a jumper who is a relative of Eight Belles, a son of her grandsire, Unbridled. When my friend got the horse, a woman he knows, a steward at Santa Anita, told him to watch out, because Unbridleds tend to be unsound and fearless, and my friend has found this to be the case. Where most horses have at least some caution, my friend’s horse will try anything. His mental toughness and competitiveness always take over, no matter what the circumstances.

This is what we saw in Eight Belles: she was more resolute and competitive than was good for her, and she literally ran herself to death. When the race was finished, every part of her was exhausted, including, I am sure, the support apparatus of ligaments and tendons that were keeping her bones together. She probably stumbled and broke one ankle, then stepped hard on the other and broke that one. Then she fell….

It is not racing per se that is cruel, it is American racing as it has been, on dirt tracks at continuous high speeds, for lots of money. Horses in Europe, who run on the turf and only exert themselves all out at the end of fairly long races, do not break down as frequently as American horses on American tracks. American horses bred like European horses, that run in races on the grass, also break down less. American horses have been expected to start racing early and to go fast from the post to the wire, because the people in the grandstands can see the whole race and like plenty of speed.

Rhoades is closer to the mark, but still fails to enumerate the industry’s failings. The hard dirt tracks are one; turf or synthetic turf lower injury rates enormously. Due to the American preference for speed at all cost, we breed for that, and our Thoroughbreds are allegedly more fragile that their European counterparts.

But the real dirty secrets are that too many horses that are not fully sound are being raced, and worse, being doped in a way that predisposes them to harm. First, a report from Thoroughbred Times on the second Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit held in 2008:

The California Horse Racing Board has compiled necropsy statistics since the early 1990s, and the summit recommendation is for similar programs to be enacted nationwide.

“Dr. Sue Stover at the University of California at Davis has done a tremendous amount of work on looking at bone and soft tissue and how it relates to ultimate fatal catastrophic injuries,” said Rick Arthur, D.V.M., the CHRB’s equine medical director. “One of the issues … is that almost all fatalities have some evidence of pre-existing pathology in the tissue somewhere. That doesn’t mean that someone abused the horse, it just tells us that we have to improve diagnosis.

But the nasty bit is the possible role of the use of Lasix, a diuretic. Think of handicapping. The addition of five pounds is a huge difference in a race. Lasix can cause a horse to lose 20 pounds, so imagine the advantage it derives, and conversely, the disadvantage a horse is at if it competes against a racer using Lasix.

Diuretics leech potassium, and potassium is a factor in bone health. The widespread use of Lasix in racehorses may be a major culprit in breakdowns. From the New York Times in 2007 (hat tip Culture of Life News):

There’s another big difference between the United States and much of the rest of the racing world: medication. Horses racing in America are allowed to be injected with various drugs on race day, the most common being Lasix, a powerful diuretic, and phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory medication. Many trainers use whatever medications are permitted whether or not they believe a horse needs it. If they don’t, the thinking goes, they will be giving an advantage to a competitor.

Brian Stewart, head of veterinary regulation for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, said that while it was impossible to scientifically link drugs to injuries, “we believe medication adds a risk factor, not only to injury, but to inconsistent racing performance.”

Hong Kong has a zero-tolerance policy on any medication in a horse’s system on race day.

This is from a 1999 article:

According to Associate Professor Kenneth Hinchcliff, of Ohio State, “We’ve found excellent evidence that associates furosemide with better performance.” Although Hinchcliff and his colleagues stopped short, of saying that the drug definitively improves performance.

Hinchcliff ‘s team analysed the race records of 22,589 thoroughbreds, the researchers found that 74 percent (16,761) of the horses were given furosemide prior to a race. These horses raced faster, were 1.4 times more likely to win a race, 1.2 times more likely to finish in the top three and earned an average of $416.00 more than the horses not receiving the drug. While 85 percent of the horses in the study had received furosemide at some point in their lives, about 74 percent of thoroughbreds are likely to be running on the drug during a race, Gross said.

The trade name for furosemide is Lasix and it is according to one team member, “frequently used by humans for its diuretic effects” (the editor wonders if this may be an oblique reference to jockeys)? In any case the diuretic effect may cause enhanced racing performance, and other studies found that horses on furosemide lost about 20 pounds of their pre-race body weight through urination.

The romance of the sport is to produce superior performance, but to what avail if it means a race to the bottom with doping and breeding programs that emphasize speed over soundness?

And consider that the sport’s most spectacular performance came in an era before these practices were in place. ESPN rated this the second best individual sports achievement, second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game:

Update 6/2/08, 9:00 PM: This comes considerably after the fact, but William Nack wrote an article, “The Breaking Point” in Sports Illustrated in which he described the factors that led to a large increase in fatal breakdowns among racehorses. Drugs, changed in how horses are raised and trained (significantly less activity to keep them pretty for yearling sales) and inbreeding are the culprits.

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  1. Jojo

    So sad. Of course it is all about the money. Always was, always will be. Same on Wall Street.

    Everything else reuired to get your hands on ever more money is considered just “collateral damage”….

  2. Anonymous

    Re: the cruelty of racing. It starts in the breeding shed. Owners pay a premium for the get of Native Dancer and Northern Dancer. The Thoroughbred lines are heavily inbred for speed, but at a cost of fragility.

  3. Anonymous

    Yes, horse racing is animal abuse. When will it stop? When the dollars stop from the bets at the track. The cruelty occurs all too often, for far too long.
    Hopefully, Eight Belle’s death will be the final wake up call to broadcast the ugly truth about horse racing.

  4. killermonkeys

    Off the mark here, as someone who has lived in the thoroughbred industry but never worked in it. Lasix is a bad, bad drug and more common than you’d hope (depending on the horse’s build), but American thoroughbreds race about 12 times in their careers, and they receive about as many doses of Lasix. It’s not going to cause a mineral deficiency. I think a lot of mid-tier trainers would be all for a zero tolerance policy.

    As for the track, dirt surfaces aren’t really the problem so much as the age. An extra year would do a whole lot more than moving to turf.

    Finally, very few horses are “kept in stalls all day”, particularly on good farms. It depends on the horse, the farm, and the trainer, but suffice to say particularly at that young age most horses have spend more life outdoors than in.

    I detect an overtone of confused animal activism. Horses are carefully bred and raised to race and most live to a long age. That’s more than can be said for any cow, sheep, or chicken. Thoroughbreds also aren’t turned away like old greyhounds. This is the reality of any business that involves live animals. The concerns are absolutely no different from running a service business, except that your star employees are horses. You can burn them out and shoot them and lose the real money maker (their post racing career stud fees), or you can treat them well enough to keep them happy and making you money for years.

    Finally to the commenter suggesting inbreeding, to some extent, yes, all horses are theoretically bred from a 4 bloodlines. But don’t you think that the hundreds of thousands of people working in the industry have heard of inbreeding and know not to cross lines too closely? There are financial incentives to get all this stuff right.

  5. Yves Smith


    Thanks for your comments. I have seen the training schedules of some top racehorses, and it does appear that they spent their non-training time in the stall. Obviously, I’ve only seen a few records, so my sample may not be representative, but I can see how a horse with top prospects wouldn’t be permitted to run around.

    I agree age is likely the biggest culprit, but most experts now agree the dirt tracks are also a factor. The few tracks that have switched to synthetic turf have seen a dramatic fall in deaths (I don’t have the stats at hand, and have a sufficiently busy day as to deter tracking them down), but as of the time of Barbaro’s death, I recall the decline was five fold, maybe even seven fold. That’s huge. The deterrent (aside from the cost of re-doing tracks) is that it removes the track consistency as a performance factor. Apparently the synthetic turf is the more or less the same from a running perspective wet or dry. That of course may impact betting, since it reduces an element of uncertainty.

    As for Lasix, I am still inclined to believe it could be a culprit, Even when the horse is rehydrated, it isn’t clear how fast his electrolytes are back at the proper levels. And I wonder if the mass/speed tradeoff that Lasix produces (less horse mass, slightly higher running speed). Force = mass x acceleration. If the decrease in weigh allowed a horse to get a gain in acceleration (say when he/she is asked to go full out) out of proportion to the weight reduction, that would indeed lead to an increase in impact, which could indeed increase injuries.

    One way to test this would be to look at the reverse phenomenon: injury rates, particularly bone breaks, in handicapped horses carrying heavier weights. If horses carrying higher imposts show lower injury rates compared to those carrying “normal” (126 lbs) to light imposts, that would provide some support.

    Finally, the inbreeding, or more accurately, breeding for speed is an issue. Again around the time of Barbaro’s death, I recall reading a piece by someone who had ridden European Thoroughbreds and was amazed at how they could handle rough terrain. He said something like “I never realized Thoroughbreds could be so sturdy.”

  6. Anonymous

    I love this website but I must agree with killermonkeys, the issues discussed such as lasix, inbreeding, and the kept in stalls comment are a weak attempt at trying to expose an issue that is just not there, given the facts you have exaggerated. There are comparable issues in every sport whether it be amimals or humans. To say that the horse goes to the glue factor once he snaps an ankle and this is a business similar to bullfighting, c’mon. The weakest and most important joint on a horse is clearly an ankle, once those break, it is very difficult for a horse to recover and most are in pain the rest of there life, there are too many activist groups that would be all over this issue if there was one there.

  7. Yves Smith

    Anon of 3:44 PM,

    There is not a single reference in the post to glue factories or Thoroughbreds becoming horsemeat (although that almost happened to Secretariat’s brother). And the part you found objectionable came from a New York Times sportswriter, who is in a far better position than I am to discuss the level of risk suffered by the participants in horseracing versus other types of contest.

    You also failed to acknowledge that there ARE things that could be done to reduce the death rate, namely, not racing horses until they are three (or better, four) and switching to synthetic turf. These are WIDELY acknowledged as measures that would help, but oh no, it would interfere with “tradition.”

  8. burnside

    These fatal incidents are as devastating – if not more so – to trainers, jockeys and owners as they are to readers here.

    I think you have to look to the regulation or oversight functions of racing associations. As in some other subject areas we explore here, narrowing the focus of an activity to money and velocity can have disagreeable consequences. As you point out, the conventions common to other parts of the globe greatly reduce some risks. And the conventions of past, but recent decades were somewhat less dangerous than today’s practices.

    I grew up in a thoroughbred training center and am as fond of these beautiful animals as anyone inevitably is who has spent time around them or had the pleasure of riding them.

    I think the changes have been unsurprising as we have moved farther from times when the object of racing and breeding was to produce a superior animal, although speed has always been a great consideration. It’s an old sport which, before the automobile became prevalent, existed in a different relation to common experience: not impossibly long ago,nearly everyone had at least one horse of their own.

    Thanks for the Secretariat footage. I wouldn’t have thought myself a racing enthusiast, but that clip goes some distance towards demonstrating how riveting the sport can be.

  9. GS751

    “The Thoroughbred lines are heavily inbred for speed, but at a cost of fragility.”

    Kind of I am very affiliated with many people in the horse industry and was at the Derby yesterday and the Oaks on Friday. They do not want horses to be fragile and owners and trainers do what is the in the best interest of the horse.

  10. Jojo

    Apparently, the thoroughbred racehorse lobby has a lot of pull in Washington, based on this excerpt from a story in the SF Chronicle today about the kludge of a farm bill that the Democrats are trying to pass. A $93 million write-off for the race horse industry???

    “It’s remarkable that anyone could call this reform with a straight face,” Hassebrook said.

    To secure votes, negotiators added a $93 million write-off for thoroughbred racehorses at the behest of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln. That is nearly as much money as organic farmers will get for research, data collection and certification help for small growers.

    The organic money is “a very significant step, but it is very far away from a fair share” given the gains organic food has made in the market, said Mark Lipson, policy program director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz. Still, he prefers the bill to pass for fear of losing this money.

    “It’s just transactional politics at its worst,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, a maverick Arizona Republican who plans to attack the bill on the House floor.

  11. Anonymous

    Yves and all,

    Horses are animals. Beautiful, wonderful animals, but animals nonetheless. You want to get on the edge, write about the economice of abortion. If the Supremes had not decided killing the unborn was a right protected by the constitution, what would this country look like now? Are babies killed more or less humanely than Eight Belles?

    The horses are treated like pets, and the ones that fail are still treated better than the steak donors we eat without thinking. And do you think MTC or ADM or any of the other agribusiness conglomerates are any more compassionate than those affiliates with the horse racing industry?

    Prespective, please.

    Chevy Chase MD

  12. Anonymous

    I agree with Yves that horse racing, at least in America, is a sad and unpleasant “sport”. However, I also agree with the call for perspective: the non-organic meat and dairy industry is by many orders of magnitude hugely more inhumane and savage in its treatment of animals. Reading about how commercially raised pigs, chickens, and steers are treated is literally sickening and will make most people instant converts to organic agriculture and organic animal husbandry. Chickens are certainly not attractive animals, but they don’t deserve the flat-out torture most receive. A rationalized, industrial ethic which ignores cruelty, injustice, and pain, and idolizes performance, profit and efficiency, permeates many aspects of our culture, from sports to food raising to financial services. It’s time for a change of spirit, literally.

  13. Lune

    A little trivia about Lasix and horses: anyone ever hear the old phrase “peeing like a racehorse?” That’s where it comes from. Lasix use is pretty common in the industry (and it is a common human diuretic as well). I have to agree with killermonkey that the effect of Lasix on mineral density is probably a non-issue, because you don’t use Lasix chronically (at least in healthy horses): you use it just at the time of the race to decrease weight and improve respiration. Besides, the potassium being lost can easily be replaced with supplements (that’s what humans who are on chronic Lasix do). I expect professional horse trainers and vets would check potassium levels and replace electrolytes as necessary.

    That said though, the underlying tone of horse racing defenders who’ve commented so far is that horse trainers and owners aren’t so stupid as to endanger their million dollar meal ticket, and therefore, the horses are taken care of with their health as the utmost priority. That’s true only to an extent. The fact is that the very nature of the sport is antithetical to the normal physiology of a horse. Horses are bred to have enormous leg muscles, all of which must exert their tremendous forces through an ankle/tendon complex not much bigger than a human’s. Why don’t breeders select for horses with sturdier ankles in addition to larger muscles? Because while larger muscles win races, sturdier ankles don’t: they merely reduce the risk of injury. And if you’re spending a million dollars on renting a stud, you want the best chance of getting a winner *now*.

    It’s very similar to all the purebreeds of dog that have bad health problems. Yes, the owners love their dogs and would never mistreat them. But they really, really want that cute pug nose, and while they might feel bad that their dog has breathing problems as a result, that sympathy isn’t great enough to make them choose a mongrel that’s less cute but actually healthier.

    I suspect until there’s a million dollar prize for best equine ankle, horses will be bred for speed and speed alone, to hell with the health consequences that poses to the individual horse and to the thoroughbred lines in general. And all the tender loving care that horse owners lavish on their animals after they’re born can’t compensate for the faulty genetics for which they were bred.

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