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Monday, May 05, 2008
One with no acquaintance to the sport of horse racing probably wonders, after high profile fatalities like the loss of Eight Belles in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby and the eventual death of Barbaro as a result of a breakdown in the 2006 Preakness, why such a cruel sport is legal. A cynic, of course, would point to its lucrative betting pools and resulting tax revenues, though in truth the sport is down and doesn’t generate the interest that it once did. (While much in the film “Seabiscuit” was dramatized and fictionalized, the depiction of the large crowds that attended big horse races in those days is entirely accurate.) And, of course, there’s the fact that when something is culturally accepted and a societal tradition, it is much harder to legislate against it. Surely many Spaniards know the cruelties involved in bullfighting and are sickened by it, but don’t expect Spain to make it illegal any time in the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, why do so many Americans love a sport that clearly puts beautiful animals at risk? Of course, betting is part of it. While horse racing is no longer the only option for legal gambling, it is still a game of skill that offers better odds than the lottery and at least the theoretical possibility that the game can be beaten. Horse racing also offers an intellectual puzzle; a combination between statistical analysis of the horses’ and trainers’ past performances and intuitions about the trainers’ intentions and how the race might be run.

But there’s more to it than degenerate gamblers. Many fans of the sport truly love horses. I am probably not the best person to comment about this– to me, most horses look pretty similar– but the sight of horses running in a pack at top speed has a visceral appeal to many people. And even I can tell you of some champion horses who looked like champions– a horse like 1989 Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer was huge, with bright red hair, and ran with an efficient stride that appeared to gobble up ground. He was a thrill to watch.

So horse racing fans are in a bind. It is a wonderful sport, both for the gambling action and for the pageantry of the sport. But it is a terrible sport, because even top horses risk their lives. Now, to be sure, statistically, fatal breakdowns are not common, and the fact that we have seen two in the past three Triple Crown cycles is a horrible coincidence.

Nonetheless, the sport is not where it should be on safety. An analogy can be drawn to meat eating. The truly ethical position is to be a vegetarian. However, we are programmed to eat meat, meat is often economical, and for some it is the only convenient food available. Nonetheless, deciding that it is not unethical to eat meat doesn’t mean that our factory farming system, with its reliance on inhumane conditions, massive doses of growth hormones, and environmental pollution should be tolerated or is morally justified.

Horse racing is filled with practices that make the breakdown rate worse. Horses are bred with little regard to soundness, because the breeders just sell the horses as yearlings and the injuries are not their problem. Buyers just want to make their money back as quickly as possible, so horses are rushed to the track. Injuries are masked with pain-killing and performance enhancing drugs, which shouldn’t be legal but are. Trainers, wanting to protect their employers’ investments and maximize their breeding value, no longer race horses into condition and instead come into big races off workouts alone.

And the true tragedy is that although everyone in the sport realizes these things, the regulatory apparatus for horse racing is so diffuse, with different regulations in every state and racetracks and governmental agencies sharing the regulatory burden, that it is likely that nothing will ever get done about them.

The only major reform coming down the pike is synthetic racing surfaces. And it is true, these might reduce breakdowns (the results are inconclusive so far). But synthetic surfaces are being treated as a cure-all for all that ails the sport, when in fact all they are is mitigation for all the horrible ways in which the sport is abusing the animals.

I suppose I will like horse racing until the day I die. But the sport does not make itself easy to love. And if these high profile breakdowns continue to happen, perhaps the public will reach a point when it is had enough. The interests who are preventing reform of the industry are hastening that day.

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