Monday, March 16, 2015

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad?

Eight Belles, who finished second to Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, crumpled in a heap after the race, shattering both of her front legs. She was quickly euthanized on the track at Churchill Downs in front of 157,000 fans.   Brian Bohannon/Associated Press

May 16, 2008

The ‘sport’ of kings can help inject life into metro Detroit’s sputtering economy, but underneath its glossy surface lies an often cruel and unusual business.

By David Mesrey

I’m the son of a horseman. Or, more accurately, a horse man. My father spent most of his adult years in one of two places: behind the counter of a grocery store or behind the gates of a race track. Winter, spring, summer and fall, he could be found at  DRC, Northville Downs, Windsor Raceway, or Hazel Park Raceway, where, in the fall of 1980, he lost his life in the grandstand.

As a boy, I tagged along with my father to all these tracks day after day, week after week. I studied harnesses and thoroughbreds. I learned about gaits and weights, bits and splits, objections, inquiries, trifectas and superfectas.

When I grew up, I was gonna be a jockey. I’d ride the sons of Alydar and avenge his defeats to the dastardly Affirmed. I’d be the next Willie Shoemaker, but always aboard the underdog. The longshot. The dark horse.

Horse racing was in my blood.

And it always will be, to some extent, not just because of how my father lived, but also because of how he died. On a fateful autumn night, my father managed to win some $300 at the track, and as he stood to place another bet, a heart attack felled him on the grandstand stairs.

Last Saturday afternoon, I was again reminded of my father. As I swilled a mint julep and rooted for underdog Smooth Air to win the Kentucky Derby, I wasn’t thinking of the inherent cruelty of the sport. I was imploring people on the front porch to come inside the house. 

“C'mon, guys! They’re at the post!” 

What followed, as always does the first Saturday in May, was “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” And for a change, the favorite won.

But moments after the race ended, I saw something I won’t soon forget.

The filly had fallen.

Eight Belles, who’d not distinguished herself at all in 2007, had “turned the corner,” as they say in sports. According to The New York Times, she’d won just one of five starts as a 2-year-old (thoroughbreds are raced at 2, well before their knees are even fused), but in her first race as a 3-year-old in 2008, she won by a remarkable 15 lengths. In fact, she won all four of her starts this year. That remarkable turnaround raises some nagging questions

Nevertheless, Eight Belles certainly made a name for herself on the track. Her owner, Rick Porter, also wanted to make a name for himself and, no doubt, started seeing dollar signs. Big dollar signs. Late last week, he decided to enter his prize pupil in the Derby. She would be the only filly in an otherwise all-male field.

Eight Belles was no dainty lady. She was as big as the boys, and her handlers thought she just might be the belle of the ball. When the gates flew open, Eight Belles broke from the 5-hole and held her ground for more than a mile; she was a genuine contender. 

But, as always, there was genuine risk. 

Then at the top of the stretch, jockey Gabriel Saez asked her for more. They always ask for more. The diminutive Panamanian, barely 20 years old, whipped his mount hard down the stretch. First with the right, then with the left.

Gallantly she galloped past the besotted throng in their high-priced hats and designer Derbywear. Boldly she strode past the towering spires of Churchill Downs.

And were it not for the odds-on favorite, Big Brown, Eight Belles just might’ve won the Run for the Roses. But Brown blew by her in that last quarter-mile and left her on the dust heap of history.

Eight Belles placed second, though, besting 18 of 19 boys in the process.
But as everyone knows by now, that’s not where the story ends.

Moments after crossing the finish line, the fragile filly collapsed in the second turn, in front of some 150,000 spectators in Louisville and millions more watching on television. The cameras cut away. 

Find Big Brown. Quickly. 
Find the stud! 
There he is! 

Focus on the winner. 
Eyes on the prize.

Eight Belles, having trained most of her short life for this most lucrative of races, had suddenly crumpled in a heap. Her spindly black legs could no longer support her heaving torso. Both of her front ankles, like the illusions of countless casual observers, were shattered — irreparably damaged.

The jockey, Saez, was thrown from the horse, the vets rushed in, the ambulances surrounded her, her fate was sealed. 

Eight Belles was likely given an intravenous injection of barbiturates, which instantly — and mercifully — killed her. She was no longer of use to her owner, to her trainer, to her industry. And so to the dust heap she went. A ghastly scene, to be sure. But if Eight Belles were in shock, she likely would’ve been shot, point blank in the forehead, with a .22-caliber pistol, right there on the track. 

This sort of tragedy rarely plays itself out in the public eye. It’s something that’s raked out of the stall and under the straw all too often. According to the Times, for every 1,000 racing starts in the United States, there are 1.5 career-ending breakdowns. 

That’s an average of two dead horses a day.
I don’t know about you, but I hope I’ve seen my last one.

Quarterhorses in America, by contrast, are handled much more sensibly. Much smaller than thoroughbreds, they’re typically broken at 2 years old, and lightly ridden for another year. Walking, trotting, cantering. But with the big money at stake with the big horses, thoroughbreds are all-out galloping on their delicate appendages by age 2.

Detroit native Kristen Billiu, who now raises horses in South Carolina, says that’s simply too soon. 

“Their bones are much too fragile to be ridden that hard, that young,” she says. 
She’s not alone.

Sheryl Leigh-Davault, an owner and breeder in Cookeville, Tennessee, says it’s shameful for owners to invest so much in breeding and training these beautiful animals “only to use them for our own greed.”

Thoroughbred horses are magnificent creatures that are still growing at 2 and even 3 years old. One Maryland breeder tells me that saddlehorses, for instance, often aren’t even “backed” at age 3 “because their owners care enough to let them finish growing before even working them lightly, let alone galloping them every morning.”

After Saturday’s sad spectacle in Louisville, it’s impossible to ignore the plight of the thoroughbred industry: Even when horse racing is clean, it’s still a dirty business. 

For every Genuine Risk, there are thousands like Eight Belles. 
For every Secretariat, scores of Barbaros

And broken bones are just one of the many hazards racehorses face. Ulcers and heart murmurs are commonplace. And because of overexertion, these horses frequently bleed from their lungs. Simply put, a thoroughbred has much better odds of being destroyed by age 3 than it does of winning a bouquet of roses.

Colorful images and slick marketing campaigns have traditionally shielded the public from harsh realities like these. Whether it’s fast food, prescription drugs, or parimutuel wagering, hard truths are too often skillfully concealed by those in control. With a new thoroughbred race track set to open this summer near Metro Airport, some tough questions need to be addressed in Michigan.

Pinnacle Race Course, according to its website, aims to be “a world-class venue.” If that's the case, then perhaps owner Jerry Campbell should consider a synthetic surface such as Polytrack, as they’re using throughout California. Or perhaps Michigan racing commissioner Christine White might consider regulating the use of whips, as they do in England. 

But horse racing’s biggest issues today are the breeders, trainers, and owners who value speed (i.e., money) above all else.

It’s high time we took a closer look at this so-called “sport of kings” in Michigan.
After casting off my rose-colored glasses, I’m not so sure it’s a sport after all.

A version of this story first appeared in the Detroit Free Press.