“Last week’s win of the Belmont Stakes (Steaks) by American Pharoah left me with a feeling of emptiness and a sour taste in my mouth that I simply could not shake. The massive amount of press about the “World’s Greatest Athlete” winning the Triple Crown was both stunning and disappointing. Horse racing and those who make money whipping young horses down a dirt track was portrayed as the “Sport of Kings” while not one word was whispered about the horrific fate that befalls the bulk of the horses that are unfortunate enough to be involved in this cruel and abusive “industry”. And then out of the darkness arose a beam of light bringing with it clarity and sanity via the well chosen words of Kavitha A. Davidson. Her article on the subject, below, clears away the media hype and centers the spotlight back on the dying and smelly practice of horse racing. I formally tip my hat to Ms. Davidson for the breath of fresh air she brings back into the world of American Equine Welfare Awareness and highly recommend the reading of her thoughtful writing. With two rescued off the track TBs in the backyard, we want to thank her for her compassion and concern.” ~ R.T.
Now that American Pharoah has captured the first Triple Crown in decades, many are wondering what that means for the future of horse racing, and of the colt himself. The New York Times’s Joe Drape believes the feat will give horse racing “a badly needed shot in the arm,” with no indication of whether the hypodermic metaphor is meant to be ironic. American Pharoah’s trainer, Bob Baffert, said he wants the horse to race as long as possible, though he did give a nod to the idea of letting the three-year-old quit while he’s ahead.
Here’s my wish: That American Pharoah goes out on a high note, and with him, the entire sport of horse racing.
Frankly, it’s a wonder that horse racing has lasted this long. Idealists would point to the sport’s long history in this country and to the unique place horses occupy in the American consciousness. But save for a few big races each year that are ultimately more cultural events and excuses to drink than marquee athletic showcases, the sport has been on a steady decline. And despite its blue-blood reputation, the “sport of kings” is really just the sport of vice, kept afloat by a system of gambling and doping that amounts to institutionalized animal abuse.
The main controversy today is over an anti-bleeding drug known as Lasix. In the U.S., it’s often administered on the day of the race, along with up to 26 other permitted substances; race-day medications are banned in almost every other country. Several top trainers have banded together to push for a plan to ban race-day medications in the U.S., citing the negative effects on the health of the animal and the reputation of the sport. Those resistant to change, including the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, claim that injecting drugs is actually good for a horse’s health.
This argument about what’s “best” for the horses blatantly overlooks the sport’s role in endangering their health in the first place. Lasix is used to treat bleeding in the lungs, a condition called exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage. EIPH is for the most part found only in racing animals, camels and greyhounds as well as horses. There are two theories of what causes EIPH in horses — that is, the mechanism by which hemorrhaging occurs — but as the disease’s name would suggest, it’s undoubtedly related to abnormally strenuous physical activity. You can debate the benefits of Lasix all you want, but it’s clear the best thing for a horse’s health would be to keep him off the track.
Horse racing is inherently cruel, and the problems start, literally, from birth: As the Indianapolis Star’s Gregg Doyel notes, we should expect nothing less than physical breakdown from an animal bred to sustain an abnormally muscular carriage on skinnier-than-usually legs. What you don’t see behind the veil of seersucker and mint juleps are the thousands of horses that collapse under the weight of their science-project bodies. This weekend at Belmont, all eyes on American Pharoah meant nobody was paying attention to Helwan, the four-year-old French colt who had to be euthanized on the track after breaking his left-front cannon bone. It was Helwan’s first time racing on Lasix.
Helwan’s breakdown is by no means an outlier. In 2008, a national audience watched in horror as Eight Belles collapsed immediately after crossing the finish line at the Kentucky Derby with two broken ankles and had to be immediately euthanized. In 2006, then-undefeated Barbaro suffered a similar injury at the Preakness and was eventually put down as well.
In 2012, the New York Times conducted a thorough investigation of the dangers of racing and the unchecked doping that furthers the risks, revealing that, “24 horses die each week at racetracks across America.” From 2009 to 2012, 6,600 horses suffered injuries or breakdowns. In that same period, 3,600 horses died at state-regulated tracks. ..(CONTINUED)
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