Is Horse Racing Breeding Itself to Death?

By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, May 4, 2008; D01

The camera cut away from her, but it should have stayed on her. Eight Belles had run herself half to death yesterday, and now the vets were finishing the job as she lay on her side, her beautiful figure a black hump on the track. Horses don't just fall down like that, you thought as NBC flitted away, cowardlike, from the sickening picture to the more appealing image of the Kentucky Derby victor, Big Brown.

There is no turning away from this fact: Eight Belles killed herself finishing second. She ran with the heart of a locomotive, on champagne-glass ankles for the pleasure of the crowd, the sheiks, oilmen, entrepreneurs, old money from the thousand-acre farms, the handicappers, men in bad sport coats with crumpled sheets full of betting hieroglyphics, the julep-swillers and the ladies in hats the size of boats, and the rest of the people who make up thoroughbred racing. There was no mistaking this fact, too, as she made her stretch run, and the apologists will use it to defend the sport in the coming days: She ran to please herself.

But thoroughbred racing is in a moral crisis, and everyone now knows it. Twice since 2006, magnificent animals have suffered catastrophic injuries on live television in Triple Crown races, and there is no explaining that away. Horses are being over-bred and over-raced, until their bodies cannot support their own ambitions, or those of the humans who race them. Barbaro and Eight Belles merely are the most famous horses who have fatally injured themselves. On Friday, a colt named Chelokee, trained by Barbaro's trainer Michael Matz, dislocated an ankle during an undercard for the Kentucky Oaks and was given a 50 percent chance of survival.

According to several estimates, there are 1.5 career-ending breakdowns for every 1,000 racing starts in the United States. That's an average of two per day.

Eight Belles collapsed after crossing the finish line, her front ankles broken so severely she could not be taken from the track. "She didn't have a front leg to stand on to be splinted and hauled off in the ambulance, so she was euthanized," said Larry Bramlage, the Derby's veterinarian.

Make no mistake, most of the people in thoroughbred racing love the animals and want them to be healthy. The Keeneland Association hosted a summit on the "Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse" after Barbaro's breakdown, to urgently consider how to better protect the horses. Synthetic surfaces are one result of the soul-searching.

But the problem is more complex than just surface; it's pervasive in the sport. Modern thoroughbreds are bred for extreme speed, maybe to the point of endangerment. Thoroughbreds are muscularly more powerful than ever, but their bone skeletons seem to be getting lighter and frail. A Kentucky Derby horse has to run a mile and a quarter on a dirt track around two turns by the age of 3. It is the horse equivalent of asking a college kid to play in the Super Bowl. A racehorse therefore has to be bred for many things at once: strength, speed, size and stamina, and it has to be fast maturing, as well.

Thoroughbred breeding is like trying to make four dials all stop on the same number. How to mate the right stallion to the right mare so as to produce a perfectly weighted, formed, balanced animal? Too often, the makeup of a horse isn't right. If it's fast, it's not strong enough, or if it's strong, it lacks stamina. Its chest is too big, or its legs are crooked.

Maybe the trouble starts when people try to take the gambling out of gambling. Breeders try to eliminate the unpredictable from the bloodlines -- the weak or the ordinary or the unknown. Maybe they are trying to breed too perfectly, down to the smallest technicality in pedigree. Pedigree is just another way to reduce the dauntingly long odds. As if you can beat luck with a checkbook.

"See, here's the deal," Nick Zito said once. "The horse don't know what it costs. He doesn't know. Owners put the price on horses, okay?"

Part of the trouble is the makeup of thoroughbreds themselves: They are creatures physically at war with their own nature. The heart and lungs are oversize knots of tissue placed in a massive chest, and huge amounts of blood course through legs that are dainty. Anyone who has spent time around a barn understands that horses love to run. They do it for fun. A few years ago, I stood in a field of yearlings in Ocala, Fla., and watched them tear around in circles like children in a playground.

They need to be given the bodies to accommodate their hearts.

"It's not always the horse with the most class you remember," trainer Allen Jerkens once said. "It's the ones who tried hardest all the time even though they weren't great horses."

It's unfortunate that NBC chose to shy away from the breakdown of Eight Belles, because we need a hard look at the real cost to the horses, no matter how upsetting and painful it is to see.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company