Death On The Racetrack

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On average, about 10 horses a week died on American racetracks in 2018, a rate which was 2 ½ to 5 times greater than that of the rest of the racing world. Industry insiders agree that thoroughbred racing in the U.S. today is in a “moral crisis”, but the sport has come a long way since the old scrappy betting days when even jockeys met death on the dirt.

Pushed to their physical limits by a wager-driven industry and compounded by performance-enhancing drugs, horses can break down on the track during training sessions or at an official chase. Even at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, the famed track lost 43 thoroughbreds to racing injuries since 2016.

Nobody can deny the heart-braking sight of Eight Belles collapsing just moments after her 2nd place finish at the 2008 Kentucky Derby. To the shock and horror of Derby revelers, the three-year old filly was euthanized on the spot due to the severity of her ankle injuries. The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) even called for the jockey’s suspension and cancellation of the prize money, but authorities found no evidence of wrongdoing by the rider.

Eight Belles’ fate was reminiscent of that of Barbaro, the colt who won the “Run for the Roses” two years earlier but then fractured three bones at the start of the Preakness Stakes. The accident ruined his racing career and months later, took his life as more complications developed.

More recently, in the winter of 2019, twenty-three horses died in just a three-month span at the Santa Anita park in Arcadia, California. Experts cited an unusual amount of rain that affected track conditions, but the number of equines that were put to sleep in that particular park was alarmingly high.

Exploring the reasons for the spike in fatalities, the national conversation also turned to modern-day overbreeding practices.  Four-legged racing machines that gallop at 40 mph, pumped with drugs that mask the stress on their “champagne-glass ankles”, are bound to become prone to serious injuries.

All this comes at a period when horse racing as a sport is losing ground to alternative forms of entertainment and plenty of other gambling options. Certain marquis races like the Triple Crown continue to thrive, but the overall number of tracks and registered racing foals has dropped significantly over the past two decades. Wagering, currently at around $11 billion, peaked at $15 billion in 2003.

Nevertheless, while the industry has shrunk considerably, it has succeeded in cleaning up the old negative stereotypes. Gone are the days when horse racing was associated with crooks, hustlers and underworld bookies.

In a 1957 interview with ABC’s Mike Wallace, Eddie Arcaro, the country’s celebrity jockey who was also President of the Jockeys’ Guild, defended the sport against questions that touched on  gambling as an immoral recreation, nefarious characters that were linked with betting, drugs that were administered to horses, and injuries that were sustained by jockeys.

Arcaro was supporting his profession and the industry, but he was also one of the founders of the Jockeys' Guild.  Launched in 1940, the Guild was organized by riders who felt exploited and underserved by horse owners and track managers. With annual dues of $30 and mounting fees of $0.25, the group raised a fund that provided its members with financial benefits in case of accidents.

Over time, the Guild introduced ambulances at racing sites, goggles, safety helmets, vests and flak jackets. All these factors helped lower severe injuries and deaths in the dangerous occupation of steering half-ton beasts at full speed. As late as 1974, seven jockeys were killed racing on official tracks in the U.S. That statistic has fallen dramatically and the last time a racer was thrown off the saddle to his or her death was in 2014.

Technology, improved regulations and better oversight helped sanitize many of the unsavory characteristics of the horse racing business as it existed decades ago. Today, since horses can’t form their own trade unions, the onus is on the owners, breeders, trainers and regulators to adopt uniform codes- medical and operational- to lower equine deaths.

Once again, horse racing needs to clean up its image and even defend its ‘raison d’etre’ in front of a dubious public. With the sport already on the wane, failure to address the problem could spell the death of the industry itself.

Other Articles Enjoyed:  Fillies At The Kentucky Derby, Dames In The World Of Sires, Northern Dancer, The Grand Daddy Of Them All

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