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May 16, 2008

Euthanasia and the Sport of Kings: The racing industry should run older horses - argues Joyce Lee Malcolm

Posted by Joyce Lee Malcolm

The racing industry should run older horses. Joyce Lee Malcolm - Professor of Legal History at George Mason University, Virginia - explains why.

Hillary Clinton and I agreed on one thing the other week when she urged folks to "go to the Derby on Saturday and place just a little money on the filly". As a woman I rooted for the filly as well. Clinton obviously saw the lone female contender in the Kentucky Derby as a symbol of her own "run for the money". I'm sure she would not want the same results; the filly finished second and had to be put down.

In its 134-year history only three fillies have won the Kentucky Derby, first of the races in the Triple Crown for three-year-olds. Eight Belles had only raced against fillies before, but when her entry was approved her owner decided to give it a try. She was a big girl, stunning black, seventeen hands high, with four straight wins to her credit, a far better record than the mediocre field of colts she would face.

With millions watching on television she ran a fine race coming in second of the twenty-horse field. Then, in the quarter of a mile past the finish line, she fell to her knees. As the television cameras focused on the jubilant owners of the winner, Big Brown, two ambulances pulled up to Eight Belles. She had broken one ankle and in trying to get up broke the other, bones sticking out. Her jockey walked away as she was euthanized on the spot. Many in the crowd wept.

Immediately apologists for the racing industry began apologizing. All sports are dangerous, this was a freak accident. The track conditions were "as close to perfect on Saturday as it could be", Larry Jones, Eight Belles' trainer pointed out, already on his way to Delaware with another promising filly. As for her jockey, Gabriel Saez, Jones insisted he did everything right.

Critics, predictably jumped in as well. The track was too hard. It should have had a synthetic surface. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), one of America's more extreme animal rights groups, called for jockey Saez to be suspended. He should have noticed something was wrong, he used the whip, whips should be banned. The Humane Society of America more thoughtfully pointed out that thoroughbreds, now bred solely for speed not soundness, are becoming too fragile.

We have heard most of it before, in particular two years ago when the winner of the Kentucky Derby, Barbaro, a big, strong colt, shattered the bones of his right hind leg in the second race of the Triple Crown. The shocked crowd in the Preakness grandstand gasped as Barbaro fell, pleading that the horse not be euthanized. So Barbaro was spared. An ambulance took him to a special equine clinic where a team of vets laboured for hours over his leg and later gave him every possible therapy. His owner brought him hand-picked grass every day. For months the New York Times ran daily reports of his progress on its website until Barbaro's sound legs developed laminitis. And that was the end. Freak accident? Could happen any day in any sport.

Sadly it is all too predictable. Not because of track conditions or the refusal to lay a synthetic track-triage many tracks adopted after Barbaro's breakdown - or a jockey using the whip, or just what can happen on any day in any sport. These three-year-old horses are simply too young. As a horse owner and backyard rider even I know that until a horse is four years old his bones are still developing.

The racing industry needs to grant these animals another year before pushing them onto the track. Swallow the cost, do the right thing. And the trend toward speed rather than stamina should stop. These horses are now designed for shorter and shorter racing careers, their solid torsos balanced on long, fragile legs. Like American cars built of fiberglass for better mileage, their bones are light for speed, but woe betide you in an accident.

For some reason American trainers are permitted to use pain-killers and medications not allowed in most countries that enable unsound horses to race. And these frailer, less sound horses are passing on their genes. Money is not only talking here, but screaming, the money men hoping the fans won't hear the din. To save their sport from public disgust and government intervention, owners and breeders need to give the horses time to grow up.

Flat racing is not the only brutal horse sport of course. Three-day eventing is a killer as well. Just before this year's Kentucky Derby the Rolex Three-Day event saw two horses destroyed in one day. Britain's Grand National, a gruelling race of over four miles with thirty jumps, has an equally lethal record. On the first day of the three-day Aintree Grand National meeting in 2000 three horses were killed and a fourth collapsed and died. That year five horses fell at the first fence in the Foxhunters' Chase, raced on the Grand National fences. And in the following race on the same course another horse took a fall at the penultimate obstacle and was killed. The chief veterinary officer of The Jockey Club explained to the weak-kneed public that year,

There are six vets on the course and there is all the emergency equipment you could possibly ask for. The facilities are truly excellent.
Aintree's managing director added the usual,
We are very sad. But accidents do happen. It's a risky sport and you have to accept that.
At least with modifications the Grand National has become somewhat less lethal. But not the Kentucky Derby.

So this year saw just another accident at the Kentucky Derby, another horse dead on the track under a clear sky, perfect conditions, vets standing by with state-of-the-art equipment. Some pundits have speculated that it is the sight of unexpected death that disturbs the audience. But it isn't just the unexpected deaths. Actually they are becoming expected. It is the senseless maiming and death of beautiful animals. Maybe when racing truly was the sport of kings, the kings were as hard-nosed as the current members of the racing fraternity. But the public has a heart and won't be comforted indefinitely by transparently lame excuses. Time for those in charge of racing to do the right thing otherwise it won't be the horses that need euthanizing, but their sport.

Joyce Lee Malcolm is Professor of Legal History at George Mason University, School of Law, in Fairfax, Virginia. She specializes in legal and constitutional history, and is the author of six books - including Guns and Violence: The English Experience - with a seventh now in press. Her work on the right to be armed has been cited in court opinions including the US Supreme Court.

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Jockies are also fragile animals bred for speed. They often suffer severe injuries when they come off because the horse is going so fast and they are so tiny.Why not introduce euthanasia for badly injured jockeys rather than the NHS having to patch them up at our expense ? They already do this with camel jockeys in Arabia. If the jockies knew that this would be their fate they would take fewer risks and fewer horses would be badly injured.

Posted by: James at May 20, 2008 02:50 AM
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