The recent breakdown of Eight Belles following her second-place win at the Kentucky Derby prompted an unprecedented outpouring of public grief and indignation. But what have we learned, and what happens now?
The thoroughbred racing industry would have us believe that Eight Belles' fractured ankles were the result of a "freak accident," that the use of drugs is rare and that the industry is capable of policing itself.
Wrong on all counts.
When an average of two thoroughbreds suffer catastrophic injuries while racing and must be euthanized every single day, this is no rare event. It's a daily occurrence. And this startling statistic doesn't include breakdowns during training sessions or nonlethal injuries.
Hard track surfaces, the immaturity of the horses and the frequency of racing all play a part. But it's the use of drugs that must be dealt with immediately.
In the weeks following the Derby tragedy, PETA heard from dozens of trainers and track employees who shared story after story of drug abuse. For the most part, these are decent people who simply can't compete in an industry where so many people aren't decent. They can't win because they won't use legal drugs to make injured horses run or illegal enhancement drugs to make their horses run faster.
Look at the rap sheets, they told us. We found that the highest levels of the thoroughbred racing industry know that horses are routinely drugged and they are complicit in allowing it to continue. Top trainers Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, Patrick Biancone, Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas have all been suspended for drugging horses. Rick Dutrow, the trainer of Triple Crown favorite Big Brown, has been suspended multiple times for illegal doping of horses as far back as 2000. These trainers get a slap on the wrist and then they're back on the track.
Unusual substances like cobra venom are injected into horses to mask pain. There is no drug test for cobra venom. Many horses undergo what industry insiders call "milk shaking"-tubing a large quantity of sodium bicarbonate and sugar into a horse's stomach, which is said to make them go faster during a race.
The use of legal drugs is just as bad. Horse trainers told us that in the five days before a race, strong anti-inflammatories, painkillers and muscle relaxants are legally injected into injured, sore horses to make them run when they should be recovering. Is this what happened to Eight Belles and perhaps the rest of the 750 or so horses who've died on tracks in the last year?
After the Derby, Eight Belles' trainer Larry Jones wept on TV and said he had not used steroids. On Preakness day, in an NBC discussion, he admitted that 24 hours before the Derby, Eight Belles had been given phenylbutazone, a strong anti-inflammatory and painkiller. Were her feet sore? If not, why was she given this drug? An autopsy may not reveal pain.
We may be able to find the answers in Eight Belles' veterinary records, which the Kentucky Commonwealth's attorney should subpoena in a formal cruelty investigation.
One thing is certain: Every commission in every state that allows horse racing should enact a zero-tolerance policy on drugs. It's not enough to sound upset and promise to examine steroid use. That's just the tip of the iceberg.
Thoroughbreds are over-whipped and over-raced on hard surfaces at too early an age. But worst of all, they are drugged to make them do what they never would under natural conditions. This is abuse and must be stopped.
Kathy Guillermo is a director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.