Sunday, May 04, 2008

Thank God I'm Not A Horse

Last night while waiting for friends I was goofing around with my Booberry and in raising MSNBC, read the tragic story of Eight Belles, who finished second in yesterday's derby only to be put down, on the track, just a few minutes later because she broke both front ankles.

I was really quite stunned by this story. Because she couldn't stand to be splinted, they couldn't move her off the track so they put her down right there. As beloved as these incredible animals are to those in the racing world, it struck me as incredibly undignified.

I'm sure my reaction is "uninformed", and that folks deeply enmeshed in the world of horse racing could explain to me why they did things the way they did. But even a whole day later, after a wonderful evening and now on a beautiful sunny day, it seems so awful. It is awful.

I know the horse would have to have been put down. I've heard some pretty horrible stories from a friend who has a horse, and some of the things that happen on the track are tragic. It just seems out of whack to put down a horse like that, right away, still on the track, the adrenaline still pumping, the one filly run in the race.

We have a track here in Northeast Ohio but I've never been. Understanding racing is about as cloudy for me as understanding football. There's an entire culture built around it, protocols and a set of standards about how to dress and what to drink. It's not a world I think I could ever really enjoy. But I know it's a world that lots of people do enjoy and even make quite a living on. Knowing how a horse runs, where he or she puts her weight, what kind of track it is, how the other horses are running -- put all these together and the right mathematician can get himself uninvited to a race for good.

Poor Eight Belles. She beat out a lot of boys in this race. She did very well, as they said at the age of just three years she ran the race of her life. Sometimes you have to do that, work harder and sacrifice more just to get ahead of the boys.

So I know I promised, no more tunes from Chameleon, but this one is the right one. It's called Hoss Race, and it's got a clever gallop that I think even Eight Belles would enjoy. So this one's for her.


At May 04, 2008 12:54 PM, Blogger Ipsissimus said...

How much crueler would it be to force the animal to walk on two broken legs front legs off the track to be killed simply so the public wouldn't have to see it happen? I think it is good that the public is forced to see what happens 1.5 in a 1,000 horse racing starts (which is 2 a day!). This great article in the Washington Post
talks about it more intelligently than I can.


At May 04, 2008 12:56 PM, Blogger Ipsissimus said...

Okay, well the link is too long - it is an article on today called "Horse Racing's Disturbing Side." Well worth reading if you are concerned about the horses.

At May 04, 2008 5:26 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

THAT is an EXCELLENT article. I am so glad I didn't watch the race on TV. I know that they say they couldn't load her into the ambulance because of her broken ankles, but I can't figure out why they couldn't take a live horse off the track same as a dead one.

But the article indirectly points out the flaw in my own reaction, or reasoning. Eight Belles was set free right away from the pain and suffering she had endured; it was no more humiliating for her to die quickly than it was for the mechanism of racing to send her to her death. The discomfort was all on thoroughbred racing's ruling class,and on those of us unprepared for such a spectacular display of unexpected consequences. It was not ultimately her discomfort and humiliation that grabbed me, but my own.

At May 04, 2008 5:34 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

A weird aside: Not long after I wrote this post this morning I got a call from my boss, whose wife and business partner took a fall yesterday after the heavy rain we had, and broke her foot and ankle in three places. To think of the suffering she's probably been through already is tough but at least it's something they can fix. I think if I suddenly broke both my ankles and would not survive, I'd hope someone who cared would have the sense to shoot me. (And I know a few people just chomping at the bit for a chance at THAT! LOL...)

At May 05, 2008 6:42 AM, Blogger Blueberry said...

Heartbreaking story. Have not read the WashPo article yet, but I personally hate to see animals used for competitive sports like racing.

At May 05, 2008 12:52 PM, Blogger Ipsissimus said...

The author of that article, Sally Jenkins, was taking questions today and explained the statistic I quoted about 1.5 in 1,000 starts better:
"I should have made that statistic clearer: according to a recent study presented by Dr. Mary Scollay on behalf of the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, there were 1.47 fatalities per 1,000 starts for synthetic surfaces and 2.03 fatalities per 1,000 starts for dirt tracks. That's a average of two horses who die per day in racing. The study emphasizes that these are short term numbers, representing less than a year and they need more time and a larger statistical sample before they consider them absolutely conclusive. But they do provide a snapshot." Slate also has a really good "explainer" on why a horse often can't be saved if they break a leg - it is amazing that such huge animals have such delicate legs. I felt the same discomfort as you did, wondering why it couldn't be more private, before remembering what I'd learned with all the Barbaro stuff.

At May 06, 2008 10:05 AM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

I think what's interesting is that this is kind of a look into how quickly an animal like this can essentially be re-engineered. If I've read everything correctly, it appears that the ankles on these animals are suddenly no longer a match for the cardio and upper body muscle power these animals wield. It also throws a little light on my feelings about the lengths that many athletes will go to merely to beat the competition. The assault on their bodies and their mental health is significant. About a year ago there was an article in the NYT about the serious mental illnesses cropping up in former NFL players who had suffered head injuries. And now their wives and families are suffering in relative silence, their husbands practically comatose or otherwise unable to function in a post-NFL role.

Despite my lack of athleticism, I find that I am quite inspired by it when it's real. I'm always sad when an Olympian comes out as having advanced their skill artificially. I think it does say more about the expectations of the crowd for a good show than it does our genuine interest in watching each individual athlete either as a solo competitor or as a member of a team, do his or her best.

Not sure where that ramble came from. Is it lunchtime yet?

At May 06, 2008 11:45 AM, Blogger DrDon said...

I think that, like most endeavors humans engage in, this is all about money. I know that racehorses can get good care, food, grooming, etc., but the fact is that they are selectively bred for characteristics that make them good at running particular styles of races. Often these characteristics are of no other benefit to the horse and certainly wouldn't be selected for in the wild because they actually make the horse more vulnerable. So, we risk the life of the horse just for that chance that it will earn the owner a bunch of money. And if 2-3 a day die, oh well.

Same with human athletes. A couple hundreths of a second or a better baseball swing can mean the difference of millions of dollars. It can mean that an Olympian ends up on a cereal box or goes home to become a gym teacher. When you're talking about this kind of money and fame, people will do whatever they have to.

Sometimes I wonder if things were really less exciting before all the performance enhancements. Baseball grew into America's pasttime in an era where there were no steroids and when athletes barely worked out. Still it was popular and people enjoyed it. Football became especially popular when the AFL merged with the NFL and when the Super Bowl was created. Today, people like Joe Namath might not even make a team.

Yes, we see a lot of records broken and we sometimes witness truly superhuman performances but are any of the sports really better for all that we do to modify the athletes, human and non? My friend, Boring Best, argues that all sports are simply stupid and a phenomenal waste of time. I always understood sports purely from a group psychology/entertainment standpoint. But maybe in an era where the events are tainted with artificial or otherwise contrived enhancements, sports really is now a waste of time, like pro wrestling. If not a waste of time, it certainly doesn't seem worth 3-4 horses a day and traumatic brain injuries.

At May 06, 2008 2:53 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

I agree. Money does drive most of it. But so does our messed up obsession with idols. Like everything else, we objectify athletes, project our own desires and dreams and shadows on them and burden them with the success we want for ourselves. And then when they let us down ethically or otherwise, we throw them away, the same way we do actors, or presidents, or porn stars, or TV characters, or stand-up comics, or husbands, or wives. What a moment it would be to see a horse refuse the shadow of racing by not leaving the gate.

At May 06, 2008 6:15 PM, Blogger Ipsissimus said...

Mando, I understand what you are saying about real athletes inspiring you - that's why I still watch the Olympics. The song "One Moment in Time" still gets me excited and I am now past any age of any Olympian.


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