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Belles and Tolls
Horse racing, like art and life, comes with tragedy built-in.
9 May 2008

As often happens when a thoroughbred horse goes down in a high-profile race, the death of Eight Belles in last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby has prompted demands for reform or even outright abolition of the sport of kings. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has called for the suspension of Eight Belles’s jockey, Gabriel Saez, alleging—without evidence—that the horse was injured before the race’s conclusion. Even Hillary Clinton, as if she doesn’t face enough obstacles at the moment, has been affected: having placed a bet on the doomed filly, she has since received an angry open letter from PETA president Ingrid Newkirk. “I regret to say that your public support of horseracing—and specifically betting on Eight Belles—makes you culpable in her destruction,” Newkirk wrote. And the day after the Derby, in the New York Times, William C. Rhoden asked: “Why do we keep giving thoroughbred horse racing a pass? Is it the tradition? The millions upon millions invested in the betting? . . . Is it the fact that horse racing is embedded in the American fabric? And the Triple Crown is a nationally televised spectacle?”

To which one feels compelled to respond: Well, yes, it’s all of those things, and others, too. Saturday was the 134th running of the Derby (and apparently its first fatality in all that time), and its Triple Crown partners, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, are even older; the three races date back to the era when professional baseball was just starting up in the United States. Three races well over a century old qualify as quasi-religious rituals in a nation as rapidly changing as the U.S. Outside sports, in fact, it’s sometimes difficult to identify other American cultural traditions in which people speak knowledgeably and passionately about events that occurred before they were born.

Still, one does not have to adopt PETA’s hard-line stance to recognize that there is a legitimate ethical debate about using animals in competitive sports when, as in horse racing, their participation exposes them to potentially life-ending injury. Further, for every Eight Belles or Barbaro that the American public mourns after watching its sad fate unfold on television, many other lesser known horses suffer similarly, without receiving anywhere near the state-of-the-art care given to elite thoroughbreds. PETA’s typically extreme reactions are easy to caricature, but humane treatment of animals is nevertheless a mark of a civilized society.

Writing in the Times the same day as Rhoden, novelist and horse breeder Jane Smiley, who describes herself as a “longtime very ambivalent fan of horse racing and a lover of thoroughbreds,” had a wiser take. “Without horse racing, there would be no thoroughbreds as we know them,” Smiley wrote, “and there is nothing like them.” Like some others, Smiley argues for changes in breeding practices as one way to cut down on horse injuries and fatalities. Knowledgeable observers point out that American thoroughbreds have been bred for speed rather than endurance and that the gene pool has shrunk over the last several decades of intensive in-breeding. The horses’ blazing speed delights fans, but the animals pay the price in brittleness. Smiley and others also urge U.S. tracks to adopt synthetic surfaces, believed to be easier on the horses. The new surfaces are closer to turf, which European horses run on, as opposed to the hard dirt tracks at Churchill Downs and elsewhere in the U.S. A handful of American tracks have adopted Polytrack, a mix of sand, rubber, synthetic fibers, and wax. Those who feel that American thoroughbreds are too brittle also tend to support lengthening the time between the Triple Crown races—currently two weeks between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont—to perhaps a month between each.

These reforms certainly have their merits, and many advocating them are experts fully devoted to the animals’ welfare. But what one doesn’t hear addressed as often is the effect that such changes would have on horse racing as a sport. Changing how the thoroughbreds are raised would lead to alterations in how they run; changing the surfaces on which they compete could lead to slower finishing times; and altering the intervals between the three legendary races would change the nature of the Triple Crown achievement. All three alterations would wreak havoc on the sport’s traditions and its relationship to its past. How could a future Triple Crown winner, should we ever see one—bred to run slightly slower, racing on Polytrack with a month’s rest between contests—possibly compare with the 11 remarkable horses who have won the Triple Crown already? When a beautiful animal like Eight Belles lies wasted on the track, it seems callous to wonder about such things. But along with the other concerns that sportswriters, breeders, and fans have raised, we should also ask at what point updating a tradition to make it less dangerous renders it obsolete.

Racing experts and officials will no doubt be the final arbiters of the proper trade-offs and the best reforms to adopt. In their deliberations, they’d do well to keep in mind not just the memory of Eight Belles, Barbaro, and their unfortunate brethren, but also many other special horses that didn’t break down: horses like those Triple Crown winners and legions of other greats besides, who have provided millions with imperishable memories (and yes, provided other individuals with millions).

Though it may be unfair to cite the example of Secretariat—regarded by many as the greatest thoroughbred ever in American racing—the response the horse evoked 35 years ago is worth remembering. It’s said that when Secretariat came charging down the stretch in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, ahead by over 20 lengths and headed for the Triple Crown, people in the grandstands were weeping. For the rest of his life, Secretariat was the most visited horse on Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, where he was retired to stud. As beautiful as Secretariat was, though, he meant so much to millions of Americans because of what he did on a racetrack—in events organized for entertainment and profit, wagered on heavily, broadcast to the world, and stalked, as always, by potential disaster.

Short of abolition, horse racing will never be free of the specter of death that hangs over the horses (and, not incidentally, the jockeys). And that goes for many other endeavors, too, that provide inspiration and beauty. It’s hard to attain these things if their opposites aren’t in contention with them, vying for the upper hand. You can’t have a Secretariat without an Eight Belles or a Barbaro. You can’t keep the beauty and eliminate the risk.

Paul Beston is associate editor of City Journal.

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