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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Thoroughbreds: Dying to Win

UPDATE: Thank you to the Fugly bloggers, who also just published a post on this very topic, with links to a number of recent articles. Thanks also to their readers who came up with these following extremely informative pieces:

First, my most favorite racing columnist of all time, Bill Nack, writing in 2009 about the reasons for the upswing in TB breakdowns. I'm sorry and surprised I missed this back then. I would cheerfully read every word the man has ever written, if only because he is the author of the preeminent biography of Secretariat, upon which the movie was based (Trivia: he also appears briefly in the movie, asking a question at a press conference alongside the actor playing his younger self. :-) I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Secretariat Festival in 2009 and he's delightful in person, too. This man knows racing inside-out and I believe this is the gospel truth.

Second, it appears the issue will once more be in front of the U.S. Congress, courtesy of a Senator from New Mexico. Huzzah!

*    *   * 
Anyone who has read this blog for a while already knows this, but in case you are not aware: I love and adore Thoroughbreds, beyond any other breed of horse. I grew up riding many of them in lesson programs, because that's all anyone had for H/J back in the day. Nobody was importing WBs when I was a kid, that's for sure; virtually all show hunters and most jumpers were TBs, often OTTB (ever heard of Idle Dice, my favorite childhood superstar?). My beloved Grey was at least part TB, as were my later best partners American Mare and Mom's Apple Pie. The latter was an OTTB who belonged to my trainer and her daughter, and I was very privileged to show her in 4-H. My most triumphant blue ribbon was earned on her back (a story I need to tell another time).

You have followed my adventures in Lexington, the heart of the US Thoroughbred breeding community. You know I'm a big fan of Old Friends equine retirement, home of many retired TB stallions and geldings. I hope to someday get my own OTTB from the Maker's Mark Secretariat Center or another OTTB retraining facility. A Thoroughbred is the only kind of horse I've ever wanted.

I'm telling you all this again so you understand why the following video and article just break my heart:

I saw a link to this several days ago on Facebook, via the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, but I have resisted reading it until now. I knew I was going to be upset. The situation on American racetracks is even more grim than I had realized; more and more horses are breaking down, and jockeys being injured.

One of the reasons is people are breeding lighter-boned, faster-maturing TBs. The main reason, however, can be summed up in this one sentence from the article.

"In England, where breakdown rates are half of what they are in the United States, horses may not race on any drugs."

Yup, there you have it. Especially in the lower levels of racing, trainers are pumping massive amounts of painkillers into the horses, masking injuries. They're also experimenting with "cocktails" of God-knows-what drugs to hopefully improve a horse's performance. It's a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, the oven temperature is getting hotter. Back in 2009, after the Eight Belles incident, Congress actually called racing onto the carpet and the industry "promised" to clean up its act. What's happened? An even higher rate of horse deaths. Now, I think the increased media scrutiny, the greater awareness of the breakdown problem, and more public knowledge of what happens to TBs after they race (especially slaughter) are HOPEFULLY going to cause a major overhaul in the way we race Thoroughbreds in the United States. It probably won't be quick in coming, but I am praying that it will happen.

Sorry for the non-cheerful post today, but this is a topic very near and dear to me.
P.S. You may find it interesting to hear that my brothers went to high school with the president of the Jockey Club, John Gagliano. He appears briefly in the video. I haven't met him, but I have met his father, who used to be my parent's attorney. One of these days I plan on putting this connection to good use...

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