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.
The injuries are just as sickening when the horses aren’t famous, when they race at older, smaller tracks or at county fairs. You just don’t hear about them. A cheap claiming horse who is run too hard is doomed to break down sooner or later. It may be on the track, when a tendon blows or a bone snaps, or it may be after too many years of too many races. At some point, worn-out horses stop winning.
These horses, the ones who aren’t euthanized on the track, as Eight Belles was, face a different kind of death. Most of them wind up as the main course on a European dinner table. The years of running are rewarded with a captive bolt to the brain.
What is the difference between this and dogfighting? Perhaps the race itself isn’t as overtly violent as what happens when two dogs are set upon each other. Perhaps the trainers of horses and the “trainers” of dogs run in different social circles. But both of these “sports” are about exploiting animals until they’re no longer profitable or useful. Both usually result in an early and sometimes horrendous death.
Take the veneer off thoroughbred racing and the reality beneath is as grotesque as anything Michael Vick was castigated for. Racing horses are routinely drugged, whipped, pushed to the literal breaking point and then cast off to be killed, butchered and sold off by the piece. Even thoroughbreds Excellor and Ferdinand, champions who were cheered by thousands, were led up the slaughterhouse ramp when they were no longer useful.
The mint juleps, the fancy hats and the stirring rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” are a silly bit of play-acting that serves as a front for a lot of pain and ugly death. We need to stop pretending that there’s anything majestic about the “sport of kings” and recognize it as the cruelty that it is.Kathy Guillermo is director of the Laboratory Investigations Department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.