Horse Race Illustrates Brutal Side of Sport
An Animal Rights Article from


WILLIAM C. RHODEN, The New York Times
May 4, 2008

Photo: Brian Bohannon/Associated Press

Why do we keep giving thoroughbred horse racing a pass? Is it the tradition? The millions upon millions invested in the betting?

Why isn’t there more pressure to put the sport of kings under the umbrella of animal cruelty?

The sport is at least as inhumane as greyhound racing and only a couple of steps removed from animal fighting.

Is it the fact that horse racing is imbedded in the American fabric? And the Triple Crown is a nationally televised spectacle? Or is it the fact that death on the track is rarely seen by a mainstream television audience?

The sentiment was summed up by Dr. Larry Bramlage on Saturday when, asked about fillies racing against colts, he said, “One death is not an epidemic.”

But this isn’t about one death. This is about the nature of a sport that routinely grinds up young horses.

A national audience was exposed to the bittersweet experience of a tremendous victory by Big Brown and — moments later — the stunning news that Eight Belles had been euthanized. As we watched Big Brown’s owner celebrate the unmitigated joy of winning the Derby, we watched Bramlage describe the details of Eight Belles’s horrible death: She had completed the race, finishing a heroic second to Big Brown. She was around the turn at the start of the backstretch when her front ankles collapsed.

Bramlage described the sickening image of what had happened: a condylar fracture on the left side and the left front that opened the skin, went through it and was contaminated.

“She didn’t have a front leg to stand on to be splinted and hauled off in the ambulance, so she was immediately euthanized,” Bramlage said.

And that was that.

After the race, Larry Jones, Eight Belles’s trainer, choked back tears as he answered questions about the filly’s death. But even through the grief, Jones instinctively toed the industry line about racing. He discounted the notion — and veiled criticism — that the dirt surface might have contributed to her death. He also refused to concede the point that horse racing is an extremely dangerous sport, saying that these types of injuries occur in any sport.

Within the racing industry, Eight Belles was a tragic but glorious casualty. The industry is in denial: racing grinds up horses, and we dress up the sport with large hats, mint juleps and string bands.

Why do we refuse to put the brutal game of racing in the realm of mistreatment of animals? At what point do we at least raise the question about the efficacy of thousand-pound horses racing at full throttle on spindly legs?

This is bullfighting.

Eight Belles was another victim of a brutal sport that is carried, literally, on the backs of horses. Horsemen like to talk about their thoroughbreds and how they were born to run and live to run. The reality is that they are made to run, forced to run for profits they never see.

On Saturday, it was Eight Belles in Louisville. Two years ago, it was Barbaro in Baltimore, with a misstep at the Preakness. And who knows how many horses die anonymous deaths? Eight Belles, we’ll write, was merely the casualty of a brutal game.

But one death is too many. The miracle of the sport of kings is that there aren’t more. But how many more do we need?

Before Saturday’s race, I walked over to the stable where Michael Matz was preparing Visionaire for the Derby. Matz was the trainer of Barbaro, the superhorse who won here in 2006 and took that fatal misstep two weeks later at the Preakness. On Friday, one of Matz’s horses, Chelokee, sustained a condylar fracture of the cannon bone in his right front leg during the running of the Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs.

The initial report was that the injury was of the same nature as Barbaro’s, and that Chelokee had a fractured ankle. The reports were inaccurate, but I wondered what thoughts had gone through Matz’s mind.

“I just ran out there to see how he was doing,” he said. Barbaro hadn’t crossed his mind, he said, just this horse at this time. That was all. Matz talked briefly about Barbaro, about why the image remains so fresh in our minds. Then he excused himself. “I have to get my horse ready for this race,” he said.

John Stephens broke in Barbaro and Visionaire when they were yearlings. Stephens was in Baltimore when Barbaro took the misstep. That experience, he said, has tempered, if not changed, his perspective on horse racing.

“I want my horse to win — I’m not going to kid you,” he said. “But not at all costs. I don’t want any horse to get injured. I want everyone to have a good trip. I want everybody to come back home.”

The words haunted me as I left the stable and echoed as I saw Eight Belles in a heap. Thoroughbred racing is a brutal sport. Why do we keep giving it a pass?

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