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Horse Racing Has Big Highs, Big Lows

Horse Racing Has Big Highs, Big Lows

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I am the father of three horse-crazy little girls. My eight-year-old has stripped her bedroom of everything that isn't connected with horses. My six-year-old asks me at least once a day to draw a picture of a horse so that she can color it. My 10-year-old wants a collector's-edition toy horse model for her upcoming birthday.

Since we moved to the Virginia countryside, the girls have made friends with a neighbor who runs a pony farm. It's like they moved to paradise. They are continually asking our neighbor for a chance to ride the ponies, but she told me recently that before they ride, they'll need to learn how to muck out a stable, clean the saddle, brush and groom the horse, etc.

"I want them to learn that horses aren't toys but living creatures that require care and attention," she told me recently.

I thought of her remarks after the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Eight Belles wasn't just a "horse," she was a real living creature. Perhaps that's why stories like the deaths of Eight Belles or Barbaro two years ago hit us the way that they do. That so much beauty and power can be so fragile seems unnatural.

Here track vet Dr. Larry Bramlage talks about what happened to Eight Belles:

The excitement over the Triple Crown chances of Big Brown seems out of place. As Pat Forde wrote for ESPN, "But that's horse racing, a sport in which the good news never seems able to outrun the bad news. For every new fan turned on to the game by Big Brown's fluidity and immense talent, two might be lost because of Eight Belles' awful ending."

We're going to look at why these tragedies seem to happen so often in the "sport of kings." Andy Beyer, sports columnist for the Washington Post, Jule Rover, NPR's health policy correspondent will be on the show, along with horse veterinarian Dr. Rick Arthur, to discuss what happened to Eight Belles and how it affects the future of horse racing with the American public.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

My wife and I raise and train quarterhorses. The quarter horse world was impacted by the stallion "Impressive" that carried a genetic defect resulting in muscle spasms and heart problems. A huge number of champion horses are descendants of Impressive and now, some 20-years later, are no longer eligible to be registered or showed.

This has had a serious impact on the overall depth of quarterhorse bloodlines and a similar problem is likely to happen in thoroughbreds. I heard on the radio that more than half of the Derby racers shared the same ancestor. It's only a matter of time before excessive line breeding results in a similar problem for thoroughbreds.

Sent by James McPherson | 3:13 PM | 5-5-2008

I have horses and have always loved horse racing but I was heartbreaking to watch the celebrations while Eight Belles young life simultaneously faded away. When the winning jockey later stated Eight Belles ran her heart out and died for "our pleasure" I was really taken aback! I hope many others were also.

Sent by Gail Marcroft | 3:17 PM | 5-5-2008

Not only have we (as the general public) seen more horse racing deaths..but this past Eventing season saw numerous deaths of horses and riders around the country...if it was another sport, I think there would be more regulation or discipline on course/footing and equipment.

Sent by Melinda Andolina | 3:21 PM | 5-5-2008

I have worked with Thoroughbred race horses for some time now and I believe the problem of break down starts far earlier that any guest has mentioned. It starts durins the sales preparation of yearlings. The almost year old race horse prospects are exercised and fed extremely protien rich feeds to maximize their size come sale day. This leads to joint enlargement and other leg injuries. The goal is to make the yearlings appear as close to a two year old as possible so that the buyer feels like the yearling will be ready to start work at 18 months old! You mention quite a lot about three year old racing, but how do you think they qualify for big races at three years old...they must race at two years old! There are juvinile races for two years old which means they must be backed before they are even two years old. Also, though Europe has traditionally not gone in for two and three year old races, they are more and more falling in with US trends and racing their horses younger and younger.

Sent by Katy Stuehm | 3:25 PM | 5-5-2008

I am a horse owner, including 2 ex-racers; I am concerned about all sport horses who are being pushed to achieve higher and higher levels. just the week before the derby 2 sport horses were fatally injured in the Rolex Kentucky Park Eventing conmpetition. we are feeding and training our horse "for sucess" much to their detriment in the end.

Sent by Linda Dupre | 3:35 PM | 5-5-2008

Thanks so much for having this discussion. I am a wildlife biologist and animal person and have been upset about the horse racing situation for many years. This practice of breeding weakness into these animals! I never will watch or have anything to do with this sport, nor will I support anyone or anything associated with it.
I have not been able to watch coverage of this because I cry too much. I am a hunter and have no problem with animals dying a humane death. There is nothing humane about what is going on in horse racing, and many other sports that involve animals.

Just look at what the AKC has done to the German Shepherd@!

Sent by Mary Gilbert | 3:37 PM | 5-5-2008

My son is a race horse trainer. No one has mentioned the rampant use of anabolic steroids, especially in racing fillies and mares, and in yearlings and two year olds destined for the sales. My son would LOVE to have the use of steroids banned, creating a much more even field.

I think the first public relations improvement that would be easily implemented is to limit the amount the rider may rely on the whip, as is done in England.

Sent by Patience Renzulli | 3:39 PM | 5-5-2008

just to add to my other message, we need to LICENSE the stallions and mares used for TB race breeding. Horses need to be put through tests like the European Warmbloods, BEFORE their offspring are eligible for registration. These tests need to include depth of BONE and size and strength of feet, soundness of wind and heart, etc. besides performance results, or a heritage of it.It would get rid of allot of the weaker genes that are responsible for early breakdowns.

Sent by Linda Dennis | 3:39 PM | 5-5-2008

55 HORSE DEATHS IN TWO YEARS AT DEL MAR RACE TRACK 2004-2006 So how many other equine deaths are there every year that go unnoticed in a sport that's largely ignored on a day-to-day basis? Let's just take one track, like Del Mar near San Diego: 55 deaths from 2004-06, says the San Diego Union-Tribune I have seen this time and time again. Horses pushed beyond when they should be. They can be forced to run to their death as I have seen many times before. After reviewing the video any trained eye can see Eight Belles front ankles hyper extending as she is being WHIPPED LITERALY TO DEATH. She was weak and NOT SOUND CLEARLY SEEN ON VIDEO during her victorias final race. Trainer How in the _ _ _ _ did you miss this. I would imagine her ankles were bruised or week from the races prior or practice not giving the filly a chance to recover. May God Bless Eight Belles as I saw this happen to my own mare but I pulled her from the old owners after she collapsed by running her heart out. She lived and is with us today if only I could of done this for Eight Belles. There are a few mares/horse very few who will not fight back no matter how much they are hurting. She was one that would die for her owner and she did. She was on in a million to have been like this to not fight back and a very special mare. This is a long race and now to continue the abuse in the name of greed even knowing full well Big Browns feet are bad the owners press on to the Preakness in just two weeks. Barbaro was not ready to run again. He was injured going into the derby. We took that hard because Dr. Gmake prosthetics for horses and could of amputated. He operated on and saved Seattle slew and my mare filly runner. This sport is mean and cruel and for those hundreds of horses who are bread to run and never even make it pass Los Alamitos or those who run even in the derby are never heard from again. I do not need to tell anyone where these horses end up. Especially now the Warmbloods are the choice of the hunter jumpers. I hope the owners have a chance to read this as do Eight Belles trainer. You know it and I know it. Training for over 20 years would how could you of missed this? ENJOY YOUR SECOND PLACE EARNINGS . Besides these horses are all insured for their deaths. There is still money to collect from the insurance even when dead. We love your heart Eight Belles we love your spirit and I am so sorry this world is cruel.

Sent by lavictus | 3:41 PM | 5-5-2008

I watched - and recorded - the race on Saturday. I was saddened enough to sob after the track vet came on and said she had been put down. Imagine if she had been the winner instead of placing? Charlsie Canty even tried to make us believe that because the horse was down on the ground not moving it didn't necessarily mean it was terrible?! This is the kind of thing, almost three decades after the death of Ruffian, that reminds me why I don't follow horse racing as closely as I used to.

Sent by Iris M. Gross | 3:44 PM | 5-5-2008

I apologize, that wasn't Charlsie Canty, but a younger woman I'm not that familiar with doing the on-track interviews for NBC.

Sent by Iris M. Gross | 4:13 PM | 5-5-2008

I have a great love for all animals. i have horses they are my friends as well.i can't even begin to tell what i'm feeling about this loss of a beatiful horse. i did'n get to see the race. but ive followed the news.i just believe this shouldn't have happened. i feel she will now get to play and run on her own free will.she will run for herself not for others.our world is a cruel place needing her for show and money. their is going to be a place for her in heavin .a little will love her for her beauty and grace.and become friends for eternity. she will never have to suffer again.

Sent by whitney shannon | 6:18 PM | 5-5-2008

I have been an admirer of the thoroughbred horse and an owner/rider/trainer of an ex-racing thoroughbred. There are so many disturbing problems in racing, that I find it very difficult to even acknowledge its existence anymore. The horses are worked too hard, too young. All of them, no matter what their actual birthdate is, are said to be another year old as of the first day of the year. So, a colt or filly born late in 2007 would be considered a yearling as of 01/01/08, even though he or she may only be nine months. A horse is not considered physically mature until he or she is at least five years old, and many other horse sports will not even begin to really work them until they reach that age. They are way overbred, to much inbreeding for speed, without any concern for overall health or physical strength. Way too many drugs are pumped into them while they are racing; painkillers, steroids. Those of us in the hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage world used to favor using the thoroughbred. Their physical ability was unparalleled in the horse world. But now, they have been replaced in these sports by horses known as "warmbloods" because these horses also have tremendous physical ability and also are physically able to handle the rigors placed upon them by these sports.

Sent by Rachel Simpson | 10:04 PM | 5-5-2008

I am so saddened by the events of the Kentucky Derby and the loss of another magnificent animal for the "pleasure and financial gain" of the few unenlightened individuals who partake of and endorse horse racing. It is not for the love of horses that these races continue every year. It is for the love of money and old traditions that won't die out. Hopefully, humans will one day move to a higher consciousness that values all life, not just their own. When that day comes, horse-racing will not be looked upon as an elitist sport or activity, but as the animal abuse that it truly is. I pity people who get all dressed up to sip their mint juleps and watch animals being tortured - we really haven't come very far!

Sent by S. Steward | 11:17 PM | 5-5-2008

Who is this doctor from Pasadena that favors polytrack?

Sent by | 1:29 AM | 5-6-2008

As a true lover of animals it broke my heart to hear of the very sad loss of yet another beautiful horse at this year's Kentucky Derby. I stopped watching horse racing long ago because I can't bare to witness another horse break its legs during this grueling event. Our society is so in love with money and making a fast buck off of an animal's struggle to win, that we forget they are beings just like us. I wish the breeding tactics of these horses was better and healthier for them, making them stronger and not so fragile. But no one seems to care enough to do anything about it. Look at the Calgary Stampede's chuck wagon races. How many more animals are going to be slaughtered before someone FINALLY puts an end to this cruel event. If humans were treated in such a manner my God heads would roll! But because animals don't have a voice, we just don't care. Quite sad, quite disgusting.

Sent by Linda H | 9:11 AM | 5-6-2008

As I write this, I hear on my local Kentucky NPR station, WKMS, that the extremist animal rights group, Peta, has filed suit in KY to ban Eight Belles' rider, Gabriel Saez, from riding and are filing a complaint against him for animal cruelty because he used his whip during the stretch run.
The Racing Commission is WAY behind the times and the thoroughbred industry going to pay dearly for it, I fear.
The changes which needed to be made five years ago, I feel are:
(1)Limit the use of the whip. In Europe the riders are strictly regulated in the severity, frequency, and necessity of using their whip. The image of riders beating the tar out of the horses all the way down the stretch is barbaric. And having a horse being beaten kind of deflates the argument that they were only running for the love of running.
(2)Ban anabolic steroids. Fillies and mares are given steroids to give them the same testosterone edge as their male peers. The problem is that the colts and geldings are also full of steroids. Yearlings and two year olds being prepped for the sales are full of steroids, so they look bulked up and mature. The use of steroids weakens tendons and ligaments, making joints even more susceptible to catastrophic injury.
(3)Require the artificial polytrack surface and/or turf at all tracks.

I love horses. I know that horses do love to run. I believe that if the Racing Commission had instituted those simple changes, the animal rights extremists would have much less ground on which to stand. I don't know if it would have saved Eight Belles; freak accidents are freak accidents. But, I have to wonder.

Sent by Patience Renzulli | 9:57 AM | 5-6-2008

I typically turn to NPR for balanced, informed discussion of issues. Unfortunately, I did not find it yesterday.

Eight Belles death is tragic. It does not, however, warrant a condemnation of the breeding and racing of thoroughbreds.

I attempted multiple times to call in to offer a alternative view to Mr. Beyer's and Ms. Rovner's ill informed opinions. Ms. Rovner placed great emphasis on the fact that Man O War's owner chose not to run him in the Kentucky Derby because, " that is too long a race for a three year old". Ms. Rovner is apparently not aware that Man O War won the Preakness and Belmont as a three year old, both of which are LONGER than the Kentucky Derby and are run within weeks of the Derby.

The lamentations of both your commentators that horses are just bred for speed are laughable. Of course they are bred for speed, they are race horses! There is about one second difference between the average winning Kentucky Derby times of today and those of the past 50 years.

The idea that commercial breeders do not care about the soundness of the horses they produce is insulting. One commentator indicated that commercial breeders don't care because the unsound horses are no longer their problem once sold to a new owner or trainer. Have Ms. Rovner and Mr. Beyer ever seen a thoroughbred sales catalog? Past performances of siblings and offspring are listed. If none of them made it to the track or had brief careers, buyers know about it. The price of the horse reflects the likelihood it will succeed at the track.

Dr. Arthur was the only guest truly qualified to comment on the soundness of thoroughbreds. Unfortunately Ms. Ravner, recieved the most air time.

Sent by Anne McMillin | 10:13 AM | 5-6-2008

I would certainly support any measure that raises the age at which young thoroughbreds begin training. I believe these animals should be started at age three or four, NOT two. The Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown races are terribly punishing and should be contests between five year olds. This is consistent with every other form of equine athletics; all horsemen know that the bones of these very young horses are vulnerable.

What I don't know is how to begin enforcing or legislating such a change. Does anyone know how such a process could begin?

Sent by Terri Naughton | 2:59 PM | 5-6-2008

Bottom line....No more baby races. Get the 2 and 3 year old fillies and colts off the race track and start racing maturer 4 & 5 year old mares, geldings or stallions! 5 & 6 year olds would be even better, perhaps then the racing industry would have alot less throw away horses that are spent at the age of 4!

Sent by JoAnne | 8:25 AM | 5-8-2008

Two year olds are too young to be in such rigorous training. Three year olds have no business racing at the level these colts and fillies are racing. Their bones, platelets, etc. are still growing and fusing...Seriously, what's to research or misunderstand here?

Sent by Kim | 11:58 PM | 5-8-2008

Changing the official jockey club birth date for race horses from January 1 to later in the year, preferably sometime in the spring might contribute to stronger, healthier race horses. The weather would be better, and the foals would have more opportunity to exercise, building stronger bones and hooves. Stronger bones and hooves would make them less vulnerable to track injuries.

submitted by J. R. Wise
author of "Give a Horse a Second Chance: Adopting and Caring for Rescue Horses."

Sent by J. R. Wise | 9:34 PM | 5-12-2008

A factor which may contribute to the breakdown of young racehorses has to do with the fact that they are born in January during inclement weather. Excess confinement of young foals can lead to contracted heels. Also, exercise is necessary for the foals to develop strong bones. If the official Jockey Club birth date was moved from January 1 to sometime in the spring, when young horses were meant to be born, they would be much healthier for it.

I have seen race horse trainers take young horses that have been standing in a stall all day and immediately run them down the track, when they should have walked or trotted the animals first, allowing their muscles to warm up.

Trainers also start these horses young, before bones and muscles have a chance to develop. All that pounding down the track can destroy a young horse. I once had to have an ex-race horse put down because I could not rehabilitate him from all the damage that had been done to his legs and hooves at the track, and by the neglectful owner who left him to rot in a back pasture when he could no longer be raced or shown. It was also difficult to keep weight on him because his digestive system had been destroyed, probably by steroids and other chemicals fed to him during his racing career.

Sent by J. R. Wise, author of "Give a Horse a Second Chance: Adopting and Caring for Rescue Horses." | 1:02 PM | 5-13-2008