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Kentucky Derby no bed of roses for race horses due to massive abuse

Dave Masko's picture

It’s been called the greatest two minutes in sports; but that’s for Kentucky Derby fans and not race horses facing abuse and even death on the track.

It was back in 2008 when a Kentucky Derby horse named “Eight Belles" broke two ankles on national television during the race, and was later euthanized. Thus, it’s no surprise that both fans and the media are interested in the treatment of these high stakes race horses. For instance, under the sensational headline: “Death and Disarray at Americas Racetracks,” an investigation conducted by The New York Times was first revealed back in its March 25 edition exposing the underbelly of this sport of kings where “6,600 horses broke down or showed signs of injury” at America’s race tracks over the past few years. While the 2012 Kentucky Derby celebrates its 138th renewal of “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports,” those who worry about horses say “a lot can happen to a horse in those two minutes as well.” For instance, a Eugene, Oregon, horse trainer named Jacob said he works with the same kind of three-year-old thoroughbred horses that participate in this annual big money stakes race in Louisville, Kentucky each first Saturday of May. “You look at the Derby, the Preakness and Belmont as the big three for these Grade 1 stakes races that is enormously stressful for the horses. You take a look at this year’s favorites ‘Take Charge Indy’ and ‘Union Rags’ and you wonder what pressure it is for these horses going all out like that for one and a quarter miles. But, what you don’t see is what’s behind the scenes before and after the horse races. That’s when they get hurt,” explained Jacob during an April 3 Huliq interview.

Kentucky Derby long tradition of taking care of horses

The Kentucky Derby race is known in the as "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports" or "The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports" for its approximate duration. It’s also called "The Run for the Roses" for the blanket of roses draped over the winner.

Also, exhibits about the Kentucky Derby’s history point to its proud tradition of taking care of its horses. The view of treating good horses like people goes back to the European tradition where “horses were honored and always protected,” states a recent story in London’s “Telegraph” newspaper that also reported – along with The New York Times - how more “abuse of horses is going on at tracks” due to the weak economy and other factors.

At the same time, a history of the Kentucky Derby points to many of its famed winners coming from Ireland and other European countries in year’s past.

For instance, over in Ireland where breeding horses goes back to the country’s first recorded history. “Always a horse country, when Ireland’s economy was booming, so was its horse trade; from expensive thoroughbreds to those considered to be of ‘poor breeding’. There may still be a market for the thoroughbreds, but times are tough for all Irish horses, especially the mongrel and ‘low quality’ horses,” explained London’s Telegraph newspaper.

In turn, Barbara Bent, chairman of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told The Telegraph, that “the economic downturn has made horse keeping an unaffordable luxury for many, which has spurred many cases of animal cruelty and abandonment. In a situation where a cost of euthanizing a horse is considered too expensive at around €300, many owners choose abandonment. Animal welfare groups are overburdened, leading some groups to reluctantly call for a cull as the only solution to the growing problem.

“Back in the Celtic Tiger days, when the economy was booming, there was space for all of these animals. People bought horses as status symbols. Builders, plumbers, postmen would make a fortune, move out of the cities, buy a house in the country, and take on a few horses,” Bent explained.

Horses injured, killed at America’s race tracks

According to the main front page story in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times for March 25, “the new economics of horse racing are making an always-dangerous game even more so, as law oversight puts animal and rider at risk.”

In turn, this New York Times headline stated: “Mangled Horses,” as the recession is blamed for not only pushing the boundaries in horse racing – so more people bet on exciting races – but the fact remains that more and more, horses across America are either being abandoned, mangled or now may face slaughter.

For example, this New York Times report stated that “on average, 24 horses die each week at racetracks across America. Many are inexpensive horses racing with little regulatory protection in pursuit of bigger and bigger prizes. These deaths often go unexamined, the bodies shipped to rendering plants and landfills rather than to pathologists who might have discovered why the horses broke down.”

In 2008, after a Kentucky Derby horse, “Eight Belles, broke two ankles on national television and was euthanized, added The New York Times report; while noting how “Congress extracted promises from the racing industry to make its sport safer. While safety measures like bans on anabolic steroids have been enacted, assessing their impact has been difficult because many tracks do not keep accurate accident figures or will not release them.”

Horses put at risk for the sake of sport and greed

A recent investigation by The New York Times has found that industry practices continue to put animal and rider at risk.

For instance, “a computer analysis of data from more than 150,000 races, along with injury reports, drug test results and interviews, shows an industry still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation and a fatal breakdown rate that remains far worse than in most of the world. If anything, the new economics of racing are making an always-dangerous game even more so. Faced with a steep loss of customers, racetracks have increasingly added casino gambling to their operations, resulting in higher purses but also providing an incentive for trainers to race unfit horses. At Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, the number of dead and injured horses has risen sharply since a casino opened there late last year.”

Also, horse owners, such as Jacob in Eugene, said "we need to remember that horses are not low-grade life. We must respect the life of these horses who give us so much pleasure and real friendship. Rare them, sure. But, never abuse them," he asserts

Horses viewed as expendable in America today

According to the Times analysis, “6,600 horses broke down or showed signs of injury” over the past few years. Also, “since 2009, the incident rate has not only failed to go down, it has risen slightly. The greatest number of incidents on a single day – 23 - occurred last year on the most celebrated day of racing in America, the running of the Kentucky Derby. One Derby horse fractured a leg, as did a horse in the previous race at Churchill Downs. All told, seven jockeys at other tracks were thrown to the ground after their horses broke down.”

Moreover, a state-by-state survey by The Times shows that “about 3,600 horses died racing or training at state-regulated tracks over the last three years.”

“It’s hard to justify how many horses we go through,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Racing Board. “In humans you never see someone snap their leg off running in the Olympics. But you see it in horse racing.”

Even some of America’s most prestigious tracks, including Belmont Park, Santa Anita Park and Saratoga Race Course, “had incident rates higher than the national average last year, records show,” added this March 25 New York Times report.

Racehorses drugged and injured

Why racehorses break down at such a high rate has been debated for years, but the discussion inevitably comes back to drugs.

To assess how often horses get injured, The Times bought data for about 150,000 races from 2009 through 2011, then searched for terms indicating that a horse encountered a physical problem, like “broke down,” “lame” or “vanned off.”

In turn, The Times unearthed shocking details of horse deaths and maltreatment.

“It’s hard to watch these poor animals running for their lives for people who could really care less if they live,” said Dr. Margaret Ohlinger, a track veterinarian at Finger Lakes Casino and Racetrack in upstate New York told the Times. “She performs pre-race inspections and treats horses injured in races but is not responsible for their overall care.”

Last year at the track, for example, Dr. Ohlinger told The New York Times that she “counted 63 dead horses. That, she said, is more than double the fatalities of five years earlier.”

Image source of what’s been claimed at the Kentucky Derby as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” takes place each first Saturday in May. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

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