Hindered By a Fragile Makeup
When Eight Belles broke down and was euthanized after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, her death provoked a predictable outcry about the cruelty of the sport.
The filly's fate was a bigger story than Big Brown's victory, even though the undefeated colt appears poised to become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years. Sunday's New York Times sports pages reflected the popular reaction. A photo of the filly, lying on the track, was spread across the first sports page; a column described the sport as "brutal;" published e-mails branded it as inhumane, abusive, unethical and barbaric.
The reaction of casual fans, who may watch only a few races a year, was intense because the memory of Barbaro's breakdown in the 2006 Preakness is fresh in everybody's mind. Many of those viewers probably remember the tragic deaths of Ruffian and Go for Wand, too.
As someone who loves the game, I would like to defend racing by explaining that such breakdowns are not an everyday occurrence. I could argue that racing has been terribly unlucky that so many catastrophic events have occurred in high-profile races seen by a nationwide television audience. The sport is not inhumane. It is not brutal. It is not barbaric.
But Eight Belles was a tragic manifestation of a problem that is more pronounced every year. America's breeding industry is producing increasingly fragile thoroughbreds. They may not break down, but they have shorter and shorter racing careers before going to stud to beget even more fragile offspring.
The facts are irrefutable. In 1960, the average U.S. racehorse made 11.3 starts per year. The number has fallen almost every year, and now the average U.S. thoroughbred races a mere 6.3 times per year. Almost every trainer whose career spans the decades will acknowledge that thoroughbreds aren't as robust as they used to be.
There are at least two good explanations for this phenomenon. In earlier eras, most people bred horses in order to race them, and they had a stake in the animals' soundness. By contrast, modern commercial breeders produce horses in order to sell them, and if those horses are unsound, they become somebody else's problem. Because buyers want horses with speed, breeders have filled the thoroughbred species with the genes of fast but unsound horses.
As this change in the breeding world took place, the sport was allowing the use of pain-killers and other medications that are forbidden in most other countries. They allow infirm horses to achieve success, go to stud and pass on their infirmities to the next generation.
The change in the overall horse population has been reflected in the Triple Crown series. Three decades ago, Affirmed and Alydar waged their legendary rivalry. They faced each other six times as 2-year-olds; they battled each other throughout their 3-year-old season and split the racing public into fervent Affirmed and Alydar camps. After his sweep of the Triple Crown, Affirmed went on to even greater glory at 4. Such prolonged campaigns and sustained rivalries are almost unheard of today. The best horses don't stay healthy long enough, and even if they do, they are hastily sent to stud to cash in on their reputations. Smarty Jones was little known before he won the 2004 Kentucky Derby and then was retired because of a minor injury after the Belmont Stakes, ending a nine-race career. Racing fans barely get to know the top thoroughbreds before they are retired.
They barely know Big Brown now. The colt had raced only three times before the 134th Derby, and only once in a stakes race. No horse with so little experience had won the Derby since 1915. But the favorite was facing opposition that looked weak on paper and appeared even weaker as the race was run. Only Eight Belles mounted anything resembling a challenge, and she lost by 4 3/4 lengths. Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow, acknowledged, "It just wasn't a strong Derby field other than our horse."
Big Brown won so easily that he may have looked like an invincible superhorse, but his time of 2 minutes 1.82 seconds was not exceptional and his Beyer Speed Figure of 109 was about average for the Derby. (Street Sense and Barbaro each earned a figure of 111 in the last two runnings.) He deserves extra credit, though, for breaking from post position 20, getting parked four-wide at the first turn and rallying wide on the final turn, too. He deserves credit, too, for showing the versatility to alter his preferred front-running style. This is obviously a very talented colt, and it is hard to imagine that he'll have much competition in the next two legs of the Triple Crown -- as long as he stays healthy.
The Big Brown scenario is almost too easy to predict. He'll run brilliantly and be retired in the fall as his owners sell him for stud duty -- probably to a sheik. His whole career will have lasted no more than nine races. Committed racing fans may not want to invest too much emotion in a colt who they know will be here today and gone tomorrow. And the casual racing fans who were repelled by what they saw in the Derby may tune out the Triple Crown altogether.