Thursday, May 15, 2008

114. Sport of kings is animal abuse

Talk about a change of fortune. One second Eight Belles is yards away from winning the biggest event in horseracing- one that would place her name in history, make her eligible to win the Triple Crown, and earn her owner hundreds of thousands in breeding. A few seconds later, she collapses amidst two shattered legs, and is instantly killed on the track.

When thinking about this column, I considered a number of approaches.

I first thought about explaining how my interest in the sport no longer exists after the deaths of a few horses the last couple of years. Perhaps surprisingly, I actually used to enjoy horseracing. I enjoyed the atmosphere, excitement and cheap gambling. . . because, as you know, "every nineteen minutes the place goes crazy." I considered the horses to be a beautiful display of nature's power and grace. Unfortunately, it was a situation in which ignorance was bliss.

I considered blaming the ill effects of horseracing on the wealthy; those that apparently have no better venture to make in life than breeding and training horses to run in some arbitrary race amidst national sports coverage and women in silly red hats. After all, they pay stud fees that run near a hundred of thousand; an investment in hopes of a large purse, future stud fees, prestige, and bragging rights amongst their shallow friends. For example, 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense is earning up to a $100,000 stud fee, with projected earnings of $50 million dollars. This is not a poor-man's game, and each horse is a major investment, with high expectations. Disappointing the large investments of wealthy and powerful people is a risky business for a horse that does not perform. Sooner or later, the owner will choose to cut his losses.

I pondered attacking tradition, and questioning how long this abusive sport should continue simply because it is firmly entrenched in American history. The "Race for the Roses," is horseracing's version of the Super Bowl, with all the parties and rituals therein. At some point, the horserace becomes a side show- the culmination of champagne toasts and social gatherings. The sport, long given a "pass" by the media, is finally being viewed critically. Times columnist William Rhoden asked, "Why do we refuse to put the brutal game of racing in the realm of mistreatment of animals?" He asked, "At what point do we at least raise the question about the efficacy of thousand-pound horses racing at full throttle on spindly legs?"

That leads into the ethical perspective, as I could easily maintain that horseracing breeds dangerously fragile animals and drugs them for optimal performance- all while whipping them to the finish line and slaughtering the losers and injured. Wayne Pacelle from the Humane Society of the United States commented:

"Here are some of the historic problems. Drugging of injured horses to keep them running, which makes vulnerable horses more susceptible to breakdowns. Racing horses too young. Because the marquee events feature 3-year-olds, these horses must start racing at the tender age of two years, and that's well before their skeletal systems are sturdy enough to endure the pounding from the rigors of the race track. And third, racing horses on track surfaces that are not forgiving-with American tracks favoring dirt surfaces over grass or synthetics."

Finally, I considered the socio-economic argument that horseracing among the wealthy is analogous to the dog-fighting of the poor. It is a recreational "sport" fought by animal competitors which are bred and trained to perform at a high level for the amusement of bored humans. For the spectators, it is more about the atmosphere- the betting and drinking- than it is about the event. Most only care if their dog or horse wins, not about the dog or horse itself. Granted, the analogy breaks down within the pure horror of dog-fighting, but the wealthy should not assume moral superiority simply because the horses are "humanly" euthanized.

It would seem that the number of approaches that I could take to illustrate the lack of integrity and lack of meaningfulness within horseracing indicates that there is a problem with this sport from a multitude of perspectives. It cannot be "fixed," though compromises will be accepted as horseracing is finally going to be under some inquiry. Although change will be slow and often unenforceable, the racing industry has been forming panels, committees and hosting summits on animal safety. Whether it is a sincere effort or a measure of placating the activists remains to be seen. Any decision will certainly consider the financial interest of those participating, so pardon my skepticism.

I could make it is easy for them- abolish the sport. That solves all of the problems, and hurts little more than a few wealthy people. As societies evolve, traditions sometimes fall by the wayside. Traditions much more significant than horseracing have been repealed. Horse owners could spend the money on things that actually matter; I can think of a million more things more enjoyable and meaningful than watching a horse fall to her death. Again.

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