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20,000 Parsecs Across The Galaxy
The 134th Kentucky Derby 
4th-May-2008 10:28 am
nautilus
I gave my horse an extra hug yesterday.





After watching the Kentucky Derby yesterday, and seeing Eight Belles run a tremendous race, only to break both her front legs after crossing the finish line, I felt absolutely sick. And I've worked on a thoroughbred farm, so I'm not one of those who claim owners and trainers are greedy, heartless people, because I know that's far from the truth. Still, American thoroughbred racing is headed for a crisis, if it's not already there.



Once upon a time, horse racing was as popular as NASCAR is now, and some of that was because people found heros to root for among the horses. Even the least horsey of you out there probably know about Seabiscuit, from the recent movie if nothing else. The public used to have favorites that they followed and came to the tracks to watch. That was in a time when horses might race until the age of five or six or seven, and they ran enough times that people could get to know them.

Some years back, though, horse racing faded as a popular sport, and attempts were made to stop that slide. One predominant method was for big corporate sponsors such as Visa and Yum Foods to offer multi-million dollar purses to garner publicity for a race. They favored the races such as the Triple Crown that were already well known to most of the public. While the Triple Crown has always been important in racing, in days gone by a three year old Triple Crown winner would next be expected to prove himself against older horses.

But these days there aren't many older horses running. With the greatest incentives in the races for two and three year olds, that's what the industry has focused on producing: horses that can win at that young age. A three year old horse is akin to an eight month old dog or a fourteen year old person- neither skeletally nor mentally mature. And while that may make sound like it is greed that motivates owners and trainers, it's really not. Breeding for young stars is a method of survival.

Raising horses of any type is very time consuming and expensive, hence the term "horse poor." Thoroughbreds in particular receive exceptional care. At the farm I worked on we gathered all 140 foals out of the pasture to take their temperature every day until they were one year old to make sure we would catch the earlist signs of illness. Each thoroughbred is a little bit of the American dream to the owner, and most feel very attached to their horses. The trainers and staff who take care of the horses are even more invested in them. It's no surprise that Eight Belles' trainer was in tears after the race, nor that he commented that he saw his grown son and daughter every few days, but he saw the horse every day.

Breeding for the young stars has favored certain lines of horses that develop quickly. Unfortunately, those same lines are also noted for fragility. One line in particular is the one that traces to the stallion Phalaris, born in 1913. His line has become so popular, it's almost impossible to find a modern thoroughbred that doesn't trace to him. With the increase in the popularity of the line has come the increase in the frequency of catastrophic breakdowns that now haunt the thoroughbred industry.

John Henry, Kelso, and Forego were examples of the old style horse hero. They were each enormously popular with the public, and each achieved multiple awards as older horses, racing to the age of eight or nine. John Henry and Kelso had no Phalaris blood; Forego traced to him once. In contrast Barbaro traced to Phalaris eight times, as did Eight Belles. Smarty Jones' owners disappointed the public by retiring the horse at the age of three, but it was the best protection of their priceless horse, because he traces to Phalaris eleven times. Now safely at stud, though, Smarty Jones will likely sire the next crop of fragile horses.

The public rightly won't stomach much more of these too frequent breakdowns, and the sport risks falling into ignominy. The overhaul it needs won't be easy. Changing purses to encourage the running of older horses is one step, but first the industry will have to get away from the fragile descendants of Phalaris that populate most barns.

I hope that horse racing can save itself. It's one of the oldest sports we have, and the horses do love to run. You can hardly restrain the "go" in a thoroughbred. My job at the thoroughbred farm was probably the best I've had. Long hours, low pay, but man was it fun. The horses and the people dedicated to them were very special, and the air was always filled with that bit of hope that characterizes the American dream.
Comments 
4th-May-2008 08:59 pm (UTC) - Fragile horses
Anonymous
It has long been my opinion that the racing game is slowly being killed for the reasons you state.
In my humble opinion there are several possible solutions:
Do not race two year olds
Lenghthen a good number of races to 1 1/2 - 2 miles
Raise purses for humble horses to encourage their participation.
Encourage the media to make heroes of "good" horses in everyday racing.
I have followed horse racing for 60 years and it breaks my heart when they kill themselves running. They love to run so let's put them on a fair playing field.
Thank for a chance to vent. Nancyb
6th-May-2008 06:03 am (UTC) - Re: Fragile horses
I agree that large scale changes need to be made. They're so large that an individual owner or trainer can't really start the revolution alone. But I'm with you- I sincerely hope it happens.
(Deleted comment)
6th-May-2008 06:05 am (UTC)
Yeah, it was so shocking, because one minute you're so happy for her to have done so well, and the next...

It was really awful.
4th-May-2008 10:30 pm (UTC)
seeing Eight Belles run a tremendous race, only to break both her front legs after crossing the finish line,

Oh Jesus God NO!!!!!!!!!!

DDDDDDDDDD8888

I didn't see the derby but I followed that mare's career!! OH NO!! OH NO!!!

I wanna cry.
6th-May-2008 06:05 am (UTC)
Yeah, me too.
4th-May-2008 11:15 pm (UTC)
Horse racing seems a lot like breeding dogs. The AKC folks truly love their dogs but they've become so fixated on appearances they've let health and temperment come in poor seconds. With the results that the breeds they love are now plagued with some horrible genetic defects. Both pure bred horses and dogs are being killed by the people who love them most.

Beautiful horse, by the way.
6th-May-2008 06:11 am (UTC)
They seem to have forgotten, or just plain not understood, basic genetics. Once or twice crossed back to an individual might be a good thing, but close to a dozen times?

My horse is a quarter horse, cutting lines. Both her parents were somewhat elderly when she was born, so her pedigree goes back rather quickly to the classic cutting horses, not the modern champions. She's fifteen hands, tiny in the thoroughbred world, but a giant in the modern cutting world. Modern cutting horses are supposed to be maybe fourteen hands- pony sized- and I just saw an article that talked about all the health issues these small horses are having. A shame for a sport based on a real working skill.
(Deleted comment)
7th-May-2008 02:22 am (UTC)
I have to agree with you. I used to watch horse racing because I was just crazy about horses when I was growing up. But more and more they're breaking down, it's unreal to watch the footage of Eight Belles or Barbaro -- there's nothing there that they tripped over, stepped in, or spooked at. No accident. Just fragile bones snapping.

It's too sad to watch anymore. Hug your horse for me, too
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