02 May 2009

AND ECOJUSTICE FOR ALL: I Vote "Neigh" on Horse Racing

That's Charlie, my horse while on assignment on a working ranch on Colorado's Western Slope. The other horse is hitched to a chuck wagon.

I, like many people, love an underdog; so when a horse with 50:1 odds wins the Kentucky Derby by six-and-three-quarter-lengths, I have to smile.
Yet I wish horse racing would be reined in entirely.

Two years ago, I traveled to Kentucky twice. In spring, the landscape enchanted with redbuds in bloom everywhere, and layers of leaky limestone, black tobacco barns, stretches of fences, and fine horseflesh.
We went to the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington. Race day dawned chilly and rainy, a miserable day to be outdoors, but we braved it. Race fans arrived in all sorts of attire ranging from very casual to what I imagined Kentucky Derby duds to be like—ice cream-colored dresses and suits, madras jackets on the men, women in hats.

The thoroughbreds astonished me. So tall and lean and frail, they were nothing like the farm and ranch horses I’d known. These horses were breathtakingly beautiful, groomed and grand. Yet they seemed like junkies, skittish and jangly-nerved--no surprise, since many of them were juiced with steroids, which was legal at the time. I learned that they used to give the horses cocaine, too.
The jockey's colorful silks were beautiful as the horses, yet the whole atmosphere stuck me straight away as sordid. We went out in the ran and stood under umbrellas, trackside, near the finish line. When the horses passed, the ground beneath thundered. I learned that the newer tracks are softer because the horses break their legs. I learned that the horse’s ankles are roughly the same size as mine, only they carry way more weight. Add to that a jockey, with a crop and a need for speed.
I'll admit that watching the horses run full tilt was fascinating, but nowhere near as captivating as seeing them canter across the open fields
--as we had on the drive to the track--with no saddle, no jockey, no whip. I grew anxious, afraid a horse would slip on the track.
My brother breeds, raises and trains horses. He insists they are smarter than dogs. Horses are prey animals, he's taught me, with enormous capacity for awareness. I hated the idea of the pressures on the race horses. Add to that a betting scene, with all the attendant smarmy details. The event, for me, grew increasingly harrowing; I used the inclement weather as as excuse leave early.

Back home, back to work, I mentioned my experience to my friend and colleague Monica, a graphic designer and horsewoman. Monica, who serves on a human society board in Indiana, told me that there’s another problem with the horse racing scene in Kentucky. She claims that when the horses don’t make the grade, they often are just turned loose. Monica says herds of horses are left to fend for themselves. A quick Internet search confirms the problem. A website for Remember Me Rescue highlights the horrible situation. One horse they just took in had chewed off another horse's tail because it had no other food.

In 2006, Barbaro won the Kentrucky Derby, but the bay colt broke down in the Preakness Stakes, shattering three bones in a hind leg. Despite valiant efforts, the horse also ended up euthanized.

Last year's Kentucky Derby ended tragically when Eight Belles finished second, but then the filly finished dead last in the male-dominated event after fracturing both her ankles and being euthanized on the track. The tragedy brought to light the dark side of the sport. Reading the account the next day, I shed tears, but hoped the cruel spectacle might cause more people to question whether horse racing is humane.

Yesterday, the morning-line favorite, I Want Revenge, scratched after coming up lame in an ankle.

Yes, the Kentucky Derby has a genteel side. No, the sport is not quite as capriciously inhumane as cockfighting or dogfighting, but there’s a similar vibe. For me, the run for the roses strikes me not as entertainment, but barbarity.

I'll be curious to hear what happened to those 21 horses who died suddenly at the polo match in Palm Beach.


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