As the 148th Kentucky Derby shines a spotlight on horse racing, the biggest question remains whether the sport can prioritize the well-being of the horses in its future.
Just a few seconds after launching from the starting gate against 20 other horses and their equestrians, the big, lanky filly Eight Belles collapsed in the dirt with two shattered front ankles. Her broken ankle bones protruded from the flesh as she struggled to stand but was unsuccessful in her attempts. Poor animal, I thought, I wish we didn’t subject them through such an ordeal, which was all for sport and fun. But here we are, vulgar and religious with our piety for tradition – the century-and-a-half horse racing tradition – now seemingly dying like Eight Belles.
Eight Belle’s Demise
The foam on her ebony coat and the blood on her injured legs shimmered in the waning afternoon light. In the picturesque stands of Churchill Downs, a myriad of colorful outfits and adorned faces stood still in shock and dismay. The wagering tickets crumpled under the tight grip of the onlookers’ fists and sweating cocktails while their jaws dropped and their facial expressions were of shock underneath garish hats with netting decorations and glued-on plastic flowers. Unfortunately, Eight Belles did not survive her injuries, and as I was pondering on the possibility of the horse racing sport getting completely erased from history like Eight Belles succumbing to her injuries and dying there on the dirt, as it has become apparent, I could not gather my collective thoughts to accept the sight that is manifesting before me.
Her life, barely into its third year, concluded in the dust beneath the old twin spires. Only those present saw the anguish in her eyes as the racetrack veterinarian administered the fatal injection to alleviate her pain.
Had the vet been successful in saving Eight Belles’ life in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, she would be in her 17th year by now, a racehorse in her late years, no doubt. But fate had other plans for the poor filly, and her life was cut short due to the heavy labor that was demanded from her. But she wasn’t exceptional, as there had been thousands of racehorses that had suffered the same fate as Eight Belles had. It’s tragic to even know that many racehorses had had tragic endings, but what’s even more frustrating is that there is a long-running lack of racing industry regulation, record keeping, transparency, and willingness, to really verify animal deaths and sufferings in this sport.
On Thursday, 31st of August, there’ll be another Derby, and we recall the death of another gentle spirit animal, Lightning Point, yet like Eight Belles, hardly anyone ever noticed, and that poor animal was sent to her grave without even any honors for her hard labor on the race track, not to mention her many wins. These two champions, born over a decade apart, have much in common. Two leading stars of America’s premier race succumbed to the intense physical strain during their performance, both at the tender age of three. Despite the seemingly neglected deaths of the two racehorses, they were able to get the sympathy of the crowd and brought about a reckoning of the sport’s ethics and integrity.
What remains unchanged is the frequent deaths of horses due to severe heart incidents and fractured bones during racing and training sessions. The frequency of racehorses dying on the track is no less common today than it was in 2008, so it’s not a rare thing. What I find rare is that for a sport chock full of folks so adept at finding patterns, no one seems to find one in these animal deaths, and that’s very frustrating. What’s even worse is the people in charge of the sport and the spectators act like it’s none of their business, and treat the horses like disposable items.
We, the public, ought to scrutinize the practice of horse racing, because it’s inhumane and cruel in some aspects, which is abysmal even for our modern generation. In the theatre of public opinion, a respectable future for the sport is a long shot. Racing barely navigates through one controversy before the next one emerges. Following the controversy-riddled death of Lightning Point in August 21 there was another tragic death of yet another promising racehorse – Arbennig – just seven days away; and as always, no one will be held accountable for it. The committee will pass it off as just another statistic, which is not even worth mentioning in their reports. News posts and blogs do more justice in covering these deaths than the official page of race-horsing organizers.
There are also cases of racehorses that barely made it to public attention, like the 23-year-old mare Keepthename, who was sold for $250,000 and was trained by veteran horse tamer, Steve Asmussen during the early 2000s. However, Keepthename did not make it big on the track, as she was relegated to becoming a breeder to bring about new mares for future races. The elegant chestnut mare, distinguished by a wineglass-shaped mark on her nose, gave birth to 12 foals in a span of 17 years. She was a warrior.
Then, about a few weeks after birthing back in April 2021, a thoroughbred rescue company based in Oklahoma called, Thoroughbred Athletes, Inc. discovered Keepthename in a slaughterhouse waiting in line to be put down permanently. She was dirty and skeletal, with a severely damaged skull. Her head drooped from pain and hopelessness, presenting a heart-wrenching picture of extreme neglect. Although the rescue had successfully removed her from that slaughterhouse, unfortunately, they could not save her life, and they ultimately decided to euthanize in a humane way. She had suffered an advanced bacterial infection in her head that even if she had undergone extensive surgery (which is what was required to save her life), she likely would not have survived.
Horse Racing: The Ugly Truth
One could almost commend the clever tactics used by the racing industry with its haphazard organization to keep itself detached from horses it no longer benefits from. Whether done intentionally or not, the horse racing industry does not have a lifelong tracking system for the thoroughbreds, and it is to their advantage because they can just discard and forget about dead horses and move on quickly. The Jockey Club tracks the breeding registry of these mares and colts; other than that, they have no other records for these poor animals. It’s so convenient for the industry to create, profit, and breed them but claim no liability for what happens to them after they retire.
Horses depart from racetracks and change hands countless times, ending up in uncertain circumstances, and they are completely left to fend for themselves. With what had happened to Keepthename, even her $60,000 victory was not enough to warrant the attention of Asmussen, her breeder Mocking Bird Farm, Inc., any of her known connections on the race track, the racing industry, and not even her owners felt the slightest guilt of being responsible for her. This is the very journey that countless former racehorses undergo, fading into anonymity, and for many, it concludes tragically. Such was the fate of unfortunate Keepthename.
Any new changes that the race horsing industry has made and for as long as it has existed, were never made with the best interest of the horses in mind. What a shame. It is unfortunate to know that race horsing aficionados, instead, reject the concerns of animal rights activists as well as the general public and see racehorses as nothing more than a disposable commodity for enjoying the sport and making money. We understand that this kind of animal sport has certain risks attached to it, which may include injuries and even death. However, what we want the racehorsing industry to do is to treat the animals more humanely, because they deserve it. When a racehorse wins, it is the mare or the colt that gets the credit and not the jockey, then why not give the poor animal better medical treatment and personal care, too?
Greed Takes Over
Surely, there is more than enough money to allocate for such things for the poor animal! $60,000 – $100,000 prize money should more than cover the expenses for training the animal, feeding it, and keeping it healthy. It’s safe to say that there’s enough money from the winnings to send the animals to a farm and let other people take care of them instead of just sending them to the slaughterhouse. Maybe it’s time we showed empathy to these poor creatures, whom we have relied on for generations to be the one who has to sacrifice the most for our amusement and never-ending need for greed. The best that can be said is that racing may be able to make itself safer for horses, but never safe enough.
One may coldheartedly argue that dozens, if not hundreds, of horses die every day; some are even culled by the government in order to keep their population at acceptable levels, so what difference does it make when racehorses die on the track? The difference is that it makes patrons accomplices to animal abuse, which should be illegal as it is morally wrong. No animal should suffer for the entertainment of a few people, or else we might as well kill these animals for sport. Maybe then people will see how cruel horse racing can become.
There have been reports that racehorses are sold for millions of dollars, yet once they’ve accomplished what their “owners” had intended them to accomplish, they are thrown out and left in the cold to die. All the while, their owners make double or triple that amount during their time in Churchill Downs and One Thousand Guineas. They make their owners fat with money, but their own lives are not worth a dime of the money they were purchased for.
The Bottom Line
If you’ll do a quick Google search today, you will see that the top search results talk negatively about the racehorse sport. It’s not just PETA or some other animal rights activists who are speaking up; the rest of the world is also – and they are speaking up loudly! Maybe it’s not a good thing to shut down the industry altogether, but ensuring that the horses will be safe throughout the race and that the industry will promise to take care of them during and after their days as a racehorse. Giving them proper medical care, health and wellness, and maybe some freedom like retiring in a reserve or a farm so that they don’t get put down in a butcher house; that’s really heartbreaking to see.
We hope that you also help spread the message by sharing this article on social media and let people know the harsh reality that these gentle mares and colts go through in race horsing. Thank you!