Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Derby Wears Black

At the risk of turning this into a blog about horseracing, which it definitely is not, I'd like to say a few words in the aftermath of the Kentucky Derby today.

First of all, Big Brown's brilliant win was beyond great. He positioned, he rated, he changed leads and when it was time to go, he was gone. He galloped out fresh. After a mile and a quarter in the company of nineteen tough competitors, he was ready to run again. He has the tactical speed to win the Preakness and the goods to win that grind of a race called the Belmont Stakes, a grueling mile and a half race that most of these horses will never face again in their careers Fasten your seat belts and stay tuned. If he is the horse he seemed to be today, then: "This could be the horse. This might be the year."

But I wanted to reserve most of my commentary for the tragic loss of the great, great filly Eight Belles. Eight Belles ran an incredible race. She came in a proud second, beating eighteen other big, strong males in the process and doing it in style. I thought for a moment that she was going to make a bid to catch Big Brown. I think she wanted to. But...well, I think I expressed my fears for her on Thursday in the post below.

Perhaps comparing her to Ruffian was not so off the mark, after all. This filly tried so hard to win that she physcially outran her body. She finished the race trying to catch Big Brown with daylight between her and the next horse in the field, passed the finish line, and as she galloped out, she broke both ankles and collapsed on the track. The fact that she had to be euthanized on the spot means exactly that...she had to be. There was nothing the experts could do to save her, or believe me, they would have. Eight Belles, like Ruffian, was all heart. Her will and her remarkable determination to win overtaxed her physical body to the point of catastrophic breakdown. It's a horrible fate for what could have potentially been one of the best fillies in history.

That said, people are already crying out for the end of horseracing, calling it a "cruel" sport. Horse racing is an extreme sport. That means there is a strong element of danger in it. These horses have been bred for centuries to run, they have to run, it's what they do. It's in their genes. I have a four year old Thoroughbred filly--daughter of a champion and granddaughter of a Kentucky Derby winner--who never set foot on a racetrack for a race, but you can't tell her that. When we turn her out to pasture, she's there to run. In her mind, she's racing. It's her essense, it's what she is, and what her ancestors have been for countless generations. Accidents happen. Injuries happen. It's a given. Should we have put a stop to racing cars when Dale Earnhardt was killed? Should we no longer have Olympics, or Pro, College or High School sports because people sometimes get seriously injured or die? Yes, it's sad. It's tragic. It's heartrending to see a great athlete go down, but the risk is part of what makes a sport a sport. I'm all for making tracks safer and conditions better, but putting a stop to horse racing, or ANY sport, is not the answer. To strive for greatness is to put everything on the line. Eight Belles put everything on the line. Honor her for her courage, don't shame her by condemning what she lived for.

Rest in Peace, Eight Belles.


Arlene said...

Laurie, my thoughts are with you. It's clear your passion and love for the riders and runners brings intense emotions when there is a tragedy, along with things to be happy about. Thanks to your words and feelings out here for the world to see I know this wonderful filly died doing what she loved.

Flick said...

I know nothing about racing at all but I agree with you Laurie that you can't stop things because tragedies might happen. You really did sort of see this might happen so you obviously know your racing!! Horses love running, love racing. They wouldn't do it if they didn't. very sad that this happened and I bet the jockey is completely devastated and will feel responsible forever but its not a reason to ban racing or to get hysterical about the issues involved.

Dawn said...

I agree. These horses love to run as much as they breathe. Get a good cow horse out in the pasture and if he sees livestock, he's gonna want to work them. Or a herding dog if he sees sheep, he's in his element. These horses are not abused, they love to run, are bred to run and most are treated better than some people treat their kids. I've seen a good working horse on my grandfathers ranch put down on the spot for snapping a leg in a hole. Sometimes there is nothing you can do, and you have to put them out of their pain, it is cruel not to. People who have not been around it, do not understand. If they could have saved her, they would have, but it would have been cruel to move forward with it if she could never walk again or was too crippled to stand, most of all run. Animals can die from depression. I've seen them dig a hole out in the pasture, circle and lie down, waiting to die, unable to go on with the loss of a friend. We had a paint that was so attached to a Shetland pony, when the pony died, the paint ceased to thrive and litteraly did what I said above. He gave up on living.

For the euthanized filly, her heart was amazing and it shows just how much an act of mercy in trying to save her, would only have resulted in her broken spirit and heart. And that was if they could do something. To euthanize her on the spot, said one thing. There was nothing that could be done. Nothing.
I do have an issue with the continued breeding of horses with such a terrible trait. Breeding any animals, dogs, horses, cattle, should always be for the best of the breed. Consious descisons to breed and animal with know genetic flaws that lead to these breakdowns, not good on the breeders part. It pursuit of a champion they allowed this happen.
I know dog breeders that will have any puppy fixed that could carry traits that are not good for the breed. They make fine pets, but they consiously keep the breed healthly by choosing to do what is right for them. My MIL and husband bred showdogs for years, and this was always foremost in their minds.
With any animal that is bred to achieve certain standards, breeders must always make consious desisions, not just for making champions but for the sake of a healthier breed. And sometimes those desisions should be to stop breeding a gentically flawed line.

Sorry if this pisses anyone off, but it's true. If I knew I would pass a horrible disabality or diease on to my children, I would never have had any. Same with any animal. We need to keep high standards and a moral consious and think about how it will affect their lives as well.

Laurie said...

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts. As you can probably tell, this tragedy has hit me hard.

Arlene and Flick, thanks for your support. Dawn, your points about breeding away from unsoundness are good ones, and a lot of breeders often have this debate. The bottom line for many is what sells, what's marketable. Unfortunately, some of the popular bloodlines that often produce phenonominal athletes--and thus yearlings that bring six or seven figures at the sales--also show an alarming trend toward catastrophic breakdown. This commercial machine, IMHO, is not good for the breed.

It's the breed-to-race breeders that strive to produce athletes that will run and stay sound, because their livelihood depends on campaigners that both have the talent to race at high levels and race for many years. They attempt to breed very selectively for these traits. Unfortunately, in this day and age, very very few can afford to both run a breeding operation and keep Thoroughbreds in race training--the costs are enormous--so breed-to-race owners are going extinct. The commercial breeders dominate the industry and their goal is to breed "the latest fashion" in yearlings. A sales topper yearling can bring hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars (yes, a youngster who has yet to step foot on a racetrack) so their goal, much like agents and editors in the writing industry, is to look ahead a year or two and figure out what genre (bloodline) is going to be the rage. Their aim is to sell their yearlings for the big bucks, and of course they want them to race well, but after the sale they no longer have this tremendous financial stake in the outcome. I'm not trying to malign the commercial breeders because they are the backbone of the industry, I'm just stating the realities of our times.

After some of the recent high profile tragedies in the sport, many are calling for change. But as with many things, thousands of jobs and a big chunk of our economy would be in jeapardy, so this is so easier said than done.

Unfortunately, those shouting the loudest for change and/or to end racing are those who have no stake in the sport.

Dawn said...

It is a shame they call for racing to stop, when it is an adjustment in breeding programs that would make all the difference. These beautiful horses deserve to run and the sport shouldn't be killed because of tragedy. Perhaps more care will be taken by the commercial breeders because of this. Or not.
Who knows the future?
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Laurie. It is passion from people like you that will keep this sport alive and help to make changes that will make a difference. :)

Laurie said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Dawn. I appreciate everyones' comments. It's been a very sad weekend for us.

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