Monday, May 5, 2008

A Derby Fan's Lament

I didn't realize I was such a horrible person.

See, I am a Kentucky Derby fan. I've never been to Churchill Downs, never sipped a julep in the grandstands while wearing an obnoxious hat and singing the edited lyrics to "My Old Kentucky Home." But for as long as I can remember, I've stopped what I was doing for 2 minutes every first Saturday of May to watch great athletes thunder to the finish. My parents knew nothing about horse racing, and even though I grew up close enough to Turfway Park to see its lights out my bedroom window as a kid, we never went to the track or placed money on a horse. But we would always watch the race together as a family, each of us cheering on a beautiful animal solely on the basis of its name, with nothing at stake but bragging rights.

I've started my own family tradition the last couple of years. On race day I take Ainsley to Turfway to place a bet on each of the horses the three of us have picked out, and come race time Jason and I sip on a homemade julep with some friends while Ainsley has some sparkling grape juice, and we all cheer for our horse to wear the roses.

And today, after reading various blog posts about Eight Belles and animal cruelty and the racing industry, I feel like a tremendous a-hole for doing so.

If you know me at all, you know I love most animals more than I love some people. If you really want to see me get choked up, take me to an animal shelter and show me an abandoned or abused animal that needs a home. Heck, I can't even watch pet food commercials without getting a lump in my throat. I would never, ever condone something that I felt put an animal in harm's way. In my mind, anyone who mistreats or murders an animal should fall under the same penalty he or she would suffer had the victim been a human.

I've never seen horse racing as abuse. I know there is a dark side to the sport and that some owners and trainers dope and whip and push too hard. I've known since I was a kid that sometimes a horse pays the ultimate price for glory. I just saw the Derby as different; these were the elite, the kings and queens of the stable, the best-kept, best-loved horses of the world. I never thought the few dollars I put down on this one race a year contributed toward any brand of cruelty.

But that is the opinion of so many out there who are outraged by the horrible accident that befell Eight Belles, coming just two years after Derby winner Barbaro suffered a fatal injury at the Preakness. For these people, the euthanizations of these two thoroughbreds from injuries sustained on the track point to a larger problem. For them, it proves that these animals are pushed too hard, too early by owners and trainers who care about nothing but their purses.

Not being an avid race watcher, there have been few times in my life that I've watched a horse suffer such an injury. When the cameras showed Eight Belles being held down on the track, my heart broke for her. I was a little shocked that, when the news coverage focused on the elated winners so soon after we had been told that Eight Belles had to be put down, there hadn't been a moment of silence or some kind of recognition from the winner's handlers that the 2nd-place horse, a filly who literally gave the race everything she had, had died. I wasn't at the track, and I don't know the mood there, but the mood in my house had gotten pretty somber at the news. It seemed like the presentation ceremony should have honored that fact.

Perhaps it was so shocking for me because I thought horse fatalities in racing were more rare and more in line with the statistics for "normal" horses. I come from a rural background; I know that people who own horses or cattle have to euthanize them following "routine" injuries or medical problems that would just land a person in a hospital for a few days or a cast for six weeks. But the news stories about Saturday's tragedy hit on a grim statistic: for every 1000 starts, 2 horses suffer fatal injuries.

When I talked to my mom Saturday after the race, she was almost in tears. Eight Belles had been her horse.

"I don't know why they have to run them like that," she said. "They run them so hard and then when they die no one cares." I disagreed with her; all of us who were watching certainly cared. And the few sounds bytes we had heard after the race indicated that her jockey, her trainer, and the field vets were distraught over her death. Plus, as I reminded her, we've all been watching the Derby for years; they are athletes displaying their amazing capabilities, doing what they were born to do. I've never seen a horse run that didn't look like it was fulfilling its natural destiny.

Now I'm not so sure. Maybe the surprise I felt Saturday when Eight Belles hadn't been honored more during the pomp and circumstance surrounding the winning horse (Big Brown, who earned Ainsley's bet) has turned into a bitter taste in my mouth. I just can't help but feel like I'm part of the problem with my race-watching, bet-placing annual festivities. Reading people's comments o the news sites today has left me feeling a little...well, villainized.

You tell me, readers. I know you represent a fairly wide spectrum of beliefs and not all of you are native Kentuckians who perhaps view the Derby with a little more romanticism than the rest of the world. Is the Derby an example of animal exploitation? Or is it a showcase for some of the finest athletes in the world? And if every horse's story could end like Seabiscuit's (the subject of one of my favorite nonfiction books), wouldn't it be easier to love this sport?

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