Is horse racing noble or barbaric?

By Hunter Ford

It’s a story made for movies: An underdog filly defies the odds and places second in the Kentucky Derby. Then tragedy strikes as swiftly as the race itself. The filly goes down with two broken ankles on its front legs. It is euthanized on the track.

The story of the gallant horse, Eight Belles, that died at Churchill Downs Saturday could be seen as the story of a hero that gave her all and went out in a blaze of glory.

Advertisement: Story continues below

Or it could be written as the classic example of man’s cruelty to animals; the story of an innocent beast, broken from its natural state and forced (presumably against its will) to perform for the amusement of a bunch of Mint Julip sipping snobs with funny hats or debaucherous gamblers watching the flat screens at casinos and sports bars.

As for me, I don’t quite know how to feel about it. The predictable response from animal rights groups like PETA, always rubs me the wrong way.

Folks at PETA would have as all eating tofu burgers and swilling soy milk. There would be no zoos, no circuses, no aquariums… not if PETA had its way. And what a dull world it would be. But I do feel badly for Eight Belles. I didn’t watch the race, because I haven’t the patience to sit through two hours of television focused on rich racehorse owners in order to watch the two-minute race that follows.

Still, there are serious issues to be addressed. Horse racing as a sport suffered a public relations blow two years ago when Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro suffered a broken leg in the Preakness Stakes and underwent a year-long ordeal before finally succumbing.

A writer for USA Today posed these questions:

•Should horses run this young? (two or three years old)

•Is a 20-horse field too filled with danger?

•Should fillies be running against males?

•Does medication play any role in this?

•Are dirt surfaces, such as those at each Triple Crown track, more dangerous than grass or the new synthetic surfaces?

•Has breeding caused a weakening of the talent pool?

“When you operate on a higher level, the risks are higher. That filly ran her guts out,” said Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, who has won two Derbys and had two colts entered Saturday. “Look at real life. These things happen. If they said, ‘We have a device where horses run on pillows and they will never get hurt,’ where do I sign?’ “

Said Big Brown’s trainer (the winner of the Derby), Richard Dutrow Jr., to the Associated Press: “To make it safer, don’t race the horses, don’t train them; then they’ll live good lives out on the farm.”

On the Internet, one of the milder criticisms came from a registered nurse in Houston.

“It is time this barbaric ‘sport’ be exposed,” wrote Gloria Gordon. “I stopped watching those races when Ruffian suffered the same fate years ago (in a 1975 match race). Being from Philly, I know firsthand how much poor Barbaro suffered. Cruelty is just that, whether animal or human.”

One Internet poster inferred that Eight Belles’ owner didn’t have an interest in saving his animal because it had already delivered what he needed- prize money. I don’t really buy that, even though I do have questions. I know that broken legs are usually deadly for horses. But for a horse this valuable, is there nothing modern science could have done?

Using performance enhancing drugs on animals goes against the spirit of fair and true competition, and if anything like that happened in relation to Eight Belles, I’m certainly opposed.

But in the end, I believe it is a long stretch to say horse racing should be outlawed.

We’re not talking about dog fighting here. Thoroughbred horses are not being sent out with the intent of harm. In fact, a case could be made that these animals are pampered.

And, even though this is the second high-profile racehorse death in two years, these types of occurrences seem to be the exception, not the norm.

If Eight Belle’s demise brings some serious reflection on how to make the sport safer, then she will not have died in vain. The reactionaries at PETA can go eat a tofu burger with a soy shake.

You can read more from Hunter Ford at his blog Ford’s columns also appear in Bessemer’s Western Star newspaper.