For years, on behalf of PETA, I’ve written polite opinion pieces urging the thoroughbred racing industry to take steps to make the sport more humane. As someone who used to show horses, play polo, hang out at race tracks in Missouri, Ohio and California and who was at Churchill Downs when another filly, Winning Colors, raced to victory at the 1988 Kentucky Derby, I felt certain that eventually improvements would come: Synthetic tracks would replace hard dirt tracks, whipping would be banned and thoroughbred owners could be persuaded to take responsibility for their spent horses.
But after seeing Eight Belles lying in the dirt at Churchill Downs, something inside me snapped—just as surely as that beautiful filly’s ankles. When a sport becomes as deadly for horses as dogfighting is for pit bulls, it’s time to close it down.
Eight Belles, who now lies cold and dead in Kentucky, is just the latest in a line of thoroughbreds whose famous lineage and expensive training couldn’t prevent a painful and premature end. The Triple Crown and other big races have become the graveyards of too many horses who were called champions: Go For Wand, who went down in the 1990 Breeders Cup Distaff—and then stumbled up and tried to keep running, her broken leg dangling. Union City, who fractured a leg in the 1993 Preakness and was destroyed. Prairie Bayou, who that same year suffered a compound fracture in the Belmont Stakes and was destroyed. George Washington, who was euthanized after breaking his leg while running the Preakness last year.
And of course Barbaro, the poster horse of the racing industry’s failures and excesses, who despite heroic efforts could not be saved from the injuries he sustained during the 2006 Preakness. Those injuries were terrible—fractures of his canon bone, sesamoids and long pastern as well as the dislocation of his fetlock joint.