It's a sad week when everyone wants to talk about horse racing, but only because of very public death in the Derby. For the record: a horse has never died on the track during the Derby. I have never seen a horse run an excellent second before breaking down 1/4 mile past the finish line. Nor have I heard of a horse breaking both front ankles simultaneously, if that's actually what happened. It was a freak occurrence of unfortunate magnitude because it happened to a highly touted filly the press was following closely, AND on the one day of the year when horse racing actually might have center stage in America.
I won money on her across the board, but I still haven't cashed my ticket. I sat quietly for awhile after the race (amid a VERY fun party) sick at heart when I realized what I had happened to this spirited, competitive filly who COULD run with the boys, beating 18 of them handily. No racing fan in the world wants to see this happen, but it is an unfortunate part of the game. You can't love this sport and remain unaffected by seeing the equine ambulance pull out and the screens come up. It only means one thing: a horse is being put down.
The same way that NASCAR drivers die in wrecks, or athletes' careers end because of a torn ACL (granted, they aren't euthanized), breakdowns are a part of horse racing. PETA's been wound up all week, calling for suspension of the jockey, and making other unreasonable demands. It would be hard to make an argument that these Triple Crown horses are abused, for the horses at this level are treated like kings (with purchase prices in the millions of dollars, and their own doctors, trainers, grooms who come running when the slightest thing goes wrong), and, to be honest, better than much of lower-income America is by their own government.
Everyone wants to understand: "How does this happen?" While I don't even think anyone connected to the horse will ever be able to answer that question clearly, there are a few things that should happen to improve conditions for the horses, and hopefully prevent more injuries in the future.
1) Determine once and for all if Polytrack or any synthetic racing surface really prevents more injuries. If it does, then put the surface in everywhere. I personally don't believe this is the main solution, especially when the stats on synthethic vs dirt surfaces over the past two years are reviewed.
2) Eliminate the use of race-day drugs that may mask injuries or problems. Nowhere else in the world allows the use of drugs on race days.
3) Eliminate the use of steroids on horses in training. Eight Belles was never on steroids, but plenty of horses are, giving them similar problems, such as soft-tissue damage, to what you see in humans with repeated use.
4) Work on improving breeding lines. There are more injuries today than there were 30 years ago, and horses ran twice as many races then. Certain breeding lines (Mr Prospector as a sire, for example) are known to have more problems, racing 30% fewer times than others.
An excellent post on this topic can be found here.