MMoments after crossing the wire second in a field of 20, tall, lanky filly Eight Belles collapsed into the dirt with two broken front ankles. The bone pierced the flesh as she struggled to stand but couldn’t. The moss on his dark coat and the blood on his mangled legs glistened in the late afternoon sun. In the charming Churchill Downs stand, a sea of rainbow suits and made-up faces froze in horror and disbelief. Fists clutched betting tickets and sweaty cocktails while jaws hooked under garish hats decorated with netting and cheap plastic flowers. Her life, just entering her third year, ended there in the dirt against the backdrop of ancient twin spires, the pain and suffering in her eyes witnessed only by those who stood above of her as the track vet pushed the lethal dose to end her suffering. .
If Eight Belles had survived the Kentucky Derby in 2008, she would be 17 by now, a horse approaching its golden years. But it didn’t have to be, due to the overwhelming stress that was causing her what she had to do. Such has also been the fate of countless racehorses since her. A number in the thousands to be sure however, due to a long standing lack of racing industry regulation, record keeping, transparency and will, the true stat may never be known.
We approach this year’s Derby on Saturday following a death that, like that of Eight Belles, no one missed: that of the cursed spirit of Medina. These two champions, born more than a decade apart, have a lot in common. Both of America’s most famous running stars died during the exorbitant physical stress of the performance and both were just three years old. Despite the years that have passed between their respective deaths, both horses have also sparked an awareness of the ethics and integrity of the sport. What clearly hasn’t changed are the horses who regularly die of catastrophic heart episodes and broken limbs while plagued by racing and training. It’s no less common today than it was in 2008. For a sport filled with people so adept at finding role models, I hope they could see one here. More importantly, they would admit it.
So continue to question the practice of horse racing we must. In the theater of public opinion, a respectable future for sport is a long shot. The race can barely fight its way through one scandal before another gets involved. After the suspicious death of Medina Spirit in December, there was the tragic story of a five-year-old child Creative Plan in February, for which no one will be held responsible. Ditto for the bizarre injustice that befell the eight-year-old stallion Laoban at the premium WinStar farm.
There are the unknowns like 23-year-old mare Keepthename, who as a youth was sold for $250,000 and trained by Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen in the early 2000s before being dispensed with a lifetime breeding. The gorgeous, elegant chestnut mare with the wineglass mark on her nose produced 12 foals in 17 years. She was a warrior. Then, just a few weeks ago, in early April, Thoroughbred Athletes, Inc, an Oklahoma-based thoroughbred rescue, identified her in the cull pipeline. She was filthy and emaciated with a crushed skull. His head was lowered in pain and despair. She was the sight of the worst negligence imaginable. The rescue raised money to buy him off the killpen and quickly had him humanely euthanized. A raging infection had taken hold of her head so much that it would have required major surgery which she probably would not have survived.
Former Keepthename trainer Asmussen oversees Saturday’s Kentucky Derby second seed, a stunning colt named Epicenter. In a bizarre twist, another famous Asmussen trainee, Midnight Bourbon, who finished fifth in last year’s Derby, died a few days ago. Not far from the hubbub of Churchill Downs, he suddenly fell ill with supposed gastrointestinal distress after a morning training session and died within an hour. It took three days for the barn to publicly announce his passing. The ghosts of so many horses roam these lands.
One could almost admire the mistrust the racing industry has employed with its dispersed structure in its efforts to maintain the distance from the horses it no longer enjoys. There is no lifetime tracking system for Thoroughbreds that the industry creates and verifies through its breeding registry known as the The Jockey Club. The industry can create as many horses as they want, profit from them in racing and breeding, and then disclaim all responsibility for what happens to them after they leave the company. Horses leave the tracks and are bought and sold endless times in unfamiliar situations, and they are entirely alone in the world. In the case of Keepthename, despite earning over $60,000 from her racing efforts alone, not Asmussen, not her breeder Mocking Bird Farm, Inc, nor any of her known connections or the tracks she raced on, nor those who owned it along the way, nor the racing industry in any capacity, ultimately had no enforceable liability to it. This is the exact path that thousands of former racehorses find themselves on, fading into obscurity, and for many that path ends in their demise. As was the case with poor Keepthename.
There has never been an evolution of the industry’s business model with the best interest of horses as the top priority. Often, instead of listening, racing aficionados voice the concerns of animal rights activists and the general public while continuing to fail to protect horses. The unspoken truth is that there will never be that awakening, that moment when suddenly the equation makes sense and the solution is clear. Horse welfare issues in racing are systemic and rooted in the very way horses are approached in sport. To truly act in the best interests of horses would require a deep ideological calculation at the macro-corporate and industry level, as well as in the minds of riders and men. Horse racing should decide if horses matter enough to take complicated, expensive and untraditional measures to protect them. Ideally, this would look like an almost complete top-down restructuring that puts horses first at all levels of decision-making. From breeding shed to tracking, from caps on the number of times a horse can be raced, its number of years in service, to incorporating a more natural and horse-friendly lifestyle for race horses. In this and only in this, there is hope. Additionally, there must be an uncompromising apparatus that hands out severe and lasting punishments to those who violate horses. It might save lives.
If you can see a young horse die catastrophically in a race or in training and move on with no more than a pang of remorse, you are doing racehorses harm. If you can publicly mourn the death of a horse that ran outstandingly but completely ignore the death of a horse that did not, you are doing racehorses harm. It is normal for the violent death of an innocent animal to impact a person in such a way as to make them turn away. If you can repeatedly see horses dying and continuing to engage in “the game”, then it’s not the public, or animal rights activists, who don’t understand, but you who have been desensitized. I speak from personal experience.
To be fair, in recent years racing has taken commendable steps to improve horse safety. These efforts have had some success, but how much is difficult to measure because the sport has long been shrinking and fewer horses are setting foot on the tracks than 20 or 30 years ago. The best that can be said is that racing can be safer for horses, but never safe. After enduring countless existential crises, now may be the true do or die time. If horse racing as an industry chooses to acknowledge reality, the most honorable next step is to be publicly honest: horse racing kills horses. The sport you love and live for kills horses.
The sport can begin but by remedying its lack of an industry-sponsored and adequately funded wrap-around tracking solution for all horses leaving the track. In some places like Louisiana, former racehorses are hemorrhaging through the slaughter pipeline. They receive a Facebook post and a short window of opportunity to be “bailed” before being shipped to slaughter in Mexico or Canada. These places charge arbitrary, sometimes outrageous, ransoms in exchange for the horse’s freedom. It’s hell for horses in the purest sense of the word. If not for the handful of independent, non-profit rescues and the individuals who network, fundraise, and work tirelessly to save these thoroughbreds, many would face horrific ends. Right now, donations from people in the industry and players are essential on behalf of the horses. But they don’t negate participation in the ongoing, often deadly exploitation of young racehorses who will one day depend on these donations as well. Meanwhile, a new generation of new foals flash in the sunlight.
Thoroughbred rescues shake their tin cups as Churchill Downs announces a project that allocates $200 million to renovate the track paddock. The raw display of wealth also plays out at industry sales, where two-year-old racehorses are driven to run in blistering fractions at previews for wealthy buyers. A colt recently purchased by Zedan Racing Stables, owners of the late Medina Spirit, went for $2.3 million and he wasn’t the only horse to sell in the millions at this unique sale in Ocala, Florida. The imbalance is satirical.
If the races hope to help each other better understand their future, now may be the time to grapple with the question of how they will fare in a modern society, culture and potentially a justice system that increasingly recognizes plus animals as entitled to certain fundamental rights. . The least of them being the survival of the for-profit company that created them. After that, all racehorses are entitled to a safe and financially secure future. These things were stolen from Eight Belles, Medina Spirit, Keepthename, Creative Plan, Laoban and thousands of other unknowns. May they not also be taken away from young horses to come.