Massive Abuse Makes Kentucky Derby No Bed of Roses for Race Horses

By Dave Masko as published on HULIQ

“The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports?”

Eight Belles, May 3 2008 Kentucky Derby

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.”

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31 comments on “Massive Abuse Makes Kentucky Derby No Bed of Roses for Race Horses

  1. Sad but true. The horses are raced when they’re too young and on hard ground. Also they are whipped . So many are sent to slaughter and the mares that can’t reproduce are often sent there too.

  2. How does the break down rate of racehorses compare to fatal events in other disciplines? How does it compare to horses that break their legs in their own pastures? I know a horse that broke his cannon bone while on a trail ride, He stepped over a ditch and his foot sunk in. He twisted the leg and ended up with a spiral fracture.
    There is no excuse for running a lame horse but the fact is horses who are not involved in racing break down. Yes there are scumbags that rely on drugs in racing. There are scumbags that abuse show horses too. There are many backyard horses that suffer from the pure ignorance of their owners. I heard of one family that owned a pony for several years and did not even know what a farrier was and never had a vet out.
    The point is, it is easy to look at racing and because they actually statistics to look at you have something to go on. There are plenty of good people in racing being given a black eye by the very visible minority that care only about money. It would be nice to get rid of that minority.

    • Lillian, I will concede there are “good people” in racing when they stop training horses that are the equivalent of human children. No two year old should be raced, no young horse should be trained before he is fully developed. Unless that changes, the injuries, etc. won’t let up. You can’t go against the laws of physics on earth and expect different results. No horse should start working until about 3 and fully developed, large horses even later. When horses were widely used people knew the later you start a horse, the longer he’ll last. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna does not start their horses until 5 years old and they work at a high level into their 20s. This isn’t new, every trainer knows this. Maybe the owners are too stupid, but there is no excuse for ignorance. The training of these equine “children” is abuse, but it doesn’t look like it, with all the pretty dresses, hats and cheerful talk. I wish the public would bother to look around and see what really goes on.

  3. Any good horseman will tell you that a horse’s bones and joints don’t truly solidify until they are about 4 sometimes 5 years old. The Triple Crown races are for 3 year olds so it was not nearly so surprising to see Eight Belles, Barbaro etc sustain life ending injuries.

    I do celebrate a good racehorse. Secretariat being the greatest of all time. It was said the other day in the Huffington Post that Secretariat was like “a one horse Mt. Rushmore”. I am honored to have seen him run even if it was just on TV. He was powerful, graceful. He knew who he was and he was proud. Penny Chenery Tweedy would have pulled him from any race if she didn’t think he was up to the challenge much less even slightly injured. This is responsible ownersihp. The current stock of owners are completely money driven with no real feeling for the horses.

    I know the sky would have to fall before racing ever considered changes in the Triple Crown Series. But what would be so wrong with letting the horses skeletal structure mature just 1 more year before they are put through the grueling short months of Triple Crown Competition? Is it because we’d have to throw out the old record book and start over? Well that shouldn’t be a problem as I don’t believe Winged Pegasus would be able to touch the records set by Secretariat. Neither will anyone else.

  4. Dave Kontz Massive Abuse headline is dishonest. These are the best kept horses in the world. Wild Horse Freedom Federation needs to keep focused on the real abuse. Wholesale slaughtering of horses. WHFF….get it right.

    • We have two off track TBs in our pasture, it took 6 months to get the drugs out of both of them and longer for the slab fracture to heal on the two year old’s knee (from racing)…all of the suffering was unnecessary. Although not the author of this article there is a tremendous amount of abuse in putting humans on the backs of babies and racing them at break neck speed before their bones have even fully grown, so the article stands.

      I do agree with you on the wholesale slaughtering of our horses and most of it comes from race horses who do not make the grade, right next to the Quarter Horse. So you have it partially right.

      • Hope your TB’s are in full recovery RT, thank you for rescuing them. My Mustang has a rescued TB in his herd. She doesn’t care for people much (except me :D) and I know why. God bless the horses.

  5. Horses are victimized and abused. Horses are drugged to run in a race, even if they have had injuries.

    Horse racing is a brutal and criminal activity toward horses, who are trusting and who do their best. If horses lose, they are often sacrificed, killed by greedy owners who have no conscience. I cannot understand how people can watch the Kentucky Derby after watching all the horses die horrible deaths there on the race track. I will not encourage horse racing by attending or by watching it.
    I saw enough horse races before I realized the mindless cruelty involved, and once I saw it I never went to another race, and I made what I witnessed known. WHY do horses, the most wonderful of creatures, noble, smart and courageous, have to be sacrificed and abused in every aspect? Something is wrong with Earth and civilizations that abuse and kill the innocent.

  6. I love to watch the horses run but I won’t be watching. I watched Barbaro and Eight Bells go down and don’t ever want to see that again. I do agree with Dave that these few horses are the best treated animals in the industry for the year or so they are trained. But once the crowd goes away the back of the training barns is “red with blood” as the losers go off to slaughter. Sorry but horse racing is another one of those disgusting industries that either has to clean up or go under. And its all their fault if it does go under! Public perception is everything as the public is the one who supports the industry. And the industry can’t hide the abuse anymore.

    • Dear Lynnette , I also watch those tragedy’s , Racing has so many horse related issues to resolve , racing has been apart of my life since I was 5 years old, My only wish is for them all today to come home to the finish line safely………………….. I also love to watch Hansen run, such beautiful form he runs like the wind !!!!!!

  7. Eight Belles doesn’t deserve this. She wasn’t drugged. She ran the greatest race of her life. And she would’ve won had Big Brown NOT BEEN ON STEROIDS!

    One ankle snapped as she was slowing down and then the other one went. Larry Jones had already started for the backside. No one called him to ask what he wanted to do. This is an ugly part of racing. You sign this waiver that says the track vet can make end of life decisions in the case you aren’t at the track. He wasn’t even given a chance to say goodbye.

    Personally I think Eight Belles statue behind the Derby Museum is rather ugly. It isn’t nearly as beautiful as Eight Belles was. Her tree is very peaceful. I just got back from Lexington and paid my respects to her.

    I know there are folks who will disagree. I do respect your opinions. I also hope you’ll respect mine.

    There are scummy folks in racing. I will TOTALLY agree with this. Big Brown’s trainer who has a LONG history of drug violations, Patrick Biacone who was found with cobra venom in his tack room. The trainers who sent there horses to slaughter without a backwards glance and tracks who won’t uphold track policy to ban trainers.

    If you’re gonna bash horse racing–use the scummy people for examples–not horses and people who do ALL they can for the horses.

    Wish you had been at Thoroughbreds for All last Sat in Lexington. I saw The Wife Doesn’t Know who while may not be 100% sound is sound enough to make a great Pony Club mount. Maybe not for jumping but for flat work. And they had HUGE Rolex folks there, Bruce Davidson, a Derby vet giving us his thoughts on the horses for adoption. And Chris McCarron was there giving a jock lesson and racing lesson.

    • And through the problems and setbacks – there will always be those who love love LOVE these horses. Thank you Margaret for speaking up.

    • Yes, Margaret…..Eight Belles as the poster child for all that is wrong with racing is wrong. This is the highest class of racing that there is in the US; the owner (Porter…weenie at times), trainer (Jones..better than decent human) and ALL the connections did not want her to breakdown….these people cared deeply.

      Is there a problem with racing?…..ABSOLUTELY!

      She died trying to do what Thoroughbreds do…give their all to race, compete and sometimes win.

      The racing industry has discarded equines, backstretch workers and paralyzed or dead jockeys. Aside from the equines, the humans would tell you it is the highest of highs and the lowest of lows…ask the Jacksons, Ms Chenery, Ron Turcotte, et al.

      It needs to be cleaned up as does the rodeo, hunter/jumpers, etc.

      The connections didn’t put Eight Belles out there to die, but I’ll tell you something (and I’ll get flamed for saying this)….better leaving (however how tragic) on the track than a killbox/squeeze chute in any part of the world.

      • Denise – wrong on so many levels. Death on the track or at slaughter – both equally horrific. What is worse: humans do this to horses. First, blame greed and overbreeding. Breeding for muscle mass that can’t be supported by legs that seem to be getting thinner and thinner. Running too hard, too fast, too often, too young. Humans searching frantically for that illusive pot o’ gold. Humans looking for two minutes of excitement. Sorry, but I don’t buy your comment about what T’breds do – giving their all to race. I don’t see ‘em racing at top speed around pastures seeing who can beat out the rest of the herd. Horses like to play a little, sure, with their pals. But they mostly like to eat and nap. The competitive racing aspect of the t’breds supposed personality? They run on the track because that’s what they’re trained to do, and they get whipped and they have the bejesus scared out of them in the starting gate. It’s not exactly a circumstance (racing, that is) that promotes peace and relaxation in man or beast. Or, shall I say, horse and beast.

      • @te1904:

        Politely put, you are entitled to your opinion and it IS what the DO (as a primary breeding raison d’etre); study the breed’s history from genesis to today. As to breakdowns, that is a bit of fate and/or a ton of help from ignorant or malicious breeders, owners, trainers, vets, and yes, even some jockeys, especially the use of drugs, speed bias, immature start dates and no longevity plan for an animal that can live into it’s 30’s.

        Can they do (DO!) other things?…. absolutely.

        And one more thing, it is YOUR OPINION that death on the track is as equally horrific as slaughter. That, dear sir/ma’am is not supported by shear numbers alone and a fallacy of some weird and emotional logic. The equines aren’t talking, but I suppose you could argue that they don’t have a vote in their demise. We can however, speak for them.

        You don’t like (hate?) racing. I love racing, but I don’t like this kind of racing. There are exceptions to this kind of racing with wonderful success stories and peaceful death for all involved.

    • There is nothing wrong in puniusrg a business to make a profit to provides ones self and family a living. It is when money becomes ones god, that that same one will have a problem. Money and possesions will never fill a person. Ive personally see millionaires here, that once they got the first million, they needed the second, then they needed the third, and they truly were, the most sad and incomplete people Ive ever know. Great big mansion, BMV convertibles and a Hummer, making millions, and still looking for something that all these material possessions just could fill. It took me 40 years to understand it, as I chased this crap also. What I found was we all have a Jesus shaped hole in our heart, and until you fill that, there will always be that search for something to fulfull ones desires, that never gets filled, because its the wrong shape.

  8. What I use to hear from the “old” cowboys/trainers (now I’m in that age group! LOL) was the fact that early training consisted of getting a young one use to a halter and handling – PERIOD. There was never any heavy duty “training” or riding till their horses were 4-5 years old because their knees and other parts of bone structure had not become permanent till then. They wanted their horses to last into their teens or 20’s and be productive in whatever work they did! Because of the stupid rule of thumb – no matter when a horse is born, it automatically becomes “a year old” on January 1st of each year – many in those “3 Year Old Races” have not even reached the actual physical age of 3 years – more like just over 2 or barely 3! When it comes down to it, the most vicious/savage on the planet the is “human animal” when it comes to all other animals.

  9. Every horse in the barns at Churchill Downs today is filled with the same excitement that I am , they are born to run and they truly love the Competition, and they know when they win !!!! Horse Racing Has Many Trainers, Owners , and Groomers who truly love Horses ,and are good to them, they give to them the same respect you would give to any Athlete who puts them self on the line for what they love to do, Racing does have many issues that need to be immediately addressed, and I believe they will be addressed……………………..

  10. with a lip tatoo and registration i could race my 2yr. old paint filly, but after seeing Eight Belles and Barbaro get killed, i wouldn’t riske my girl for any prize money and i know she’s got talent. no way. love her too much. she’s just my daughter!

  11. The Sport of Kings, dispicable and disgusting. Interesting read: Animal Aid UK, Racehorse Deathwatch continuous orbituary of Horses killed on Britain’s 60 Racecourses. Read em and weep.

    • Thoroughbreds are breed and born to race. Please explain how the breed continues without racing?

      Yes, the mid to low level is disgusting and the entire system needs to be fixed….but it is what they do and everything on this planet dies; it is just when, how and why.

      My previous comments have evaporated, but I agree with Margaret; Eight Belles isn’t your poster child for all that is wrong with racing. I am just as outraged at concussions in football, boxing and rodeo.

      • Sorry….”…BRED and born to race……” Geesh!

        Great clean and safe race today.

      • thoroughbreds can do just about anything. carry your kids around, work cattle, and the list goes on. they’re versatily, smart, athletic, just plain beautiful. and they mow your lawn for free.

  12. And SO many Family and Friends have questioned me since I was 3 years old.Why do you not eat meat? Why do you stick up for the Animals? That was 48 years ago. I speak for those that can’t. The Bitches that wear those BUTT UGLY thousand dollar hats and the “Owners” of the Horses that do or don’t make the race, Using Animals to make Money is like taking a runaway Teen of the street and selling her/him for sex. Think about it than responsed

  13. BTW…Lava Man (Cal bred, superior race horse) led I’ll Have Another as lead pony to the gate for the Derby. You gotta love that O’Neill knows what they need (the horses that is…BOTH). That is an amazing commentary on the good people in racing. The jockey’s story is also moving.

    I won’t comment further on “dying on the track” save to say it is ugly, but not always due to malfeasance or conspiracy of evil with drugs, etc. As to the numbers of TBs bred and raced that go to slaughter, I will debate the point because we really don’t know as the registry (Jockey Club) doesn’t collect that data as owners AREN’T required to report it or even legally change ownership when they sell to slaughter….or any nonracing sale for that matter.

    The Huffington Post is not my encyclopedia on what is wrong with racing or the world for that matter. They have a very poor record of exposing equine abuse, land abuse and the Western Public Lands scandal evolving before our very eyes.

  14. My answer, & answered in a parental thinking mode, is the reason you don’t see humans breaking legs in the Olympics, but you see horses breaking bones in races, is because, first of all, we don’t race human toddlers around tracks. Compare young teens/youths, running in high school & those running in th Olympics. The younger kids DO get hurt way more often, as in shin splints, fractures, strains, sprains, etc.. By the time they’ve trained long & hard enough to be in the Olympics, their bodies are more mature & more conditioned for endurance & stamina. So here’s the comparison to horses: Thoroughbreds are started way too young, they ARE equal to human toddlers, their bodies & bones are still growing, developing & gaining strength & density. If they waited until these equine athletes were a little older, like 4 or 5, & stronger, maybe they wouldn’t break down so much. Not to mention the fact of too much bad breeding, & not thinking of the possible consequences. Kind of like dog breeding. A good, responsible breeder will only breed healthy animals, as in example, the German Sheperd. Bad breeders equal a greater chance of a dog with hip displasia, good breeders will check for that condition BEFORE breeding, to lessen those chances. It’s really a shame, because think of horses in the wild, they probably don’t break down that often. They also run, & sometimes it’s full out, but, not for those prolonged distances, nor at those expected speeds, unless of course, they’re being terrified & chased by the BLM!! The Thoroughbred industry needs to put more time into training, conditioning, & the development of these equine athletes, instead of rushing them into this grueling sport at such a young age. Just my “motherly” opinion.

    • Dear Valerie , you have made good commonsense here , that has been lacking in Horse racing,….Answers as simple for racing as what you wrote here,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, COMMON SENSE simple but true !!!!!!

  15. yes, let them mature one more year at least, but how about a law that does not allow gambling to be related to animals at all? gamble on your car races, on human events, but do not subject animals to the insanity and the addiction of gambling, because that is what drives people to push animals beyond their limits.

  16. It does seem that adding casinos, racinos & more gambling to horse racing just adds so much more pressure to add more races – more money – more, more, more. Which just encourages horse owners (racehorse) to push the young & injured horses farther & farther. If these horses are racing at 3 – and not even 3 years old – they were probably training at 2 – which truly is a baby. No wonder there are relatively few horses that are successful beyond 4 years old. John Henry truly was special considering how long he continued racing. And unusual…
    Face it, every horse discipline, when money & fame are involved, can make life horrible & short, depending on the people involved!
    Then there are the people who, having NO idea of how to care for a horse – just think how NEAT it would be to have one.
    Wish all of us (humans) could make the lives of animals better – because it IS our responsibility.

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