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At the 2008 running of the Kentucky Derby, a 3-year-old filly named Eight

Belles taught millions of onlookers about the other side of horse racing. Just

after she crossed the finish line she fell to the ground with both front

ankles shattered. Minutes later, as the race's winner received his blanket of

roses and a check for nearly $1.5 million, Eight Belles' life ended in

excruciating pain and terror.

But the tragedy comes as no surprise. Horses fall to fatal injuries by the

scores at racetracks each year. Thousands more face lifelong injuries due to

routine practices designed to get the most wins for the least amount of money.

Everything about the life of a racehorse is planned to optimize earnings

and minimize cost. While most mammals give birth in the warm days of spring,

thoroughbred mares are bred to give birth as soon after Jan. 1 as possible --

when by decree all racehorses count themselves a year older -- to gain as much

age and size as possible in time for big races like the Derby.

A young horse begins training around the age of 18 months, when her body is

about as well developed as an 8-year-old human. Bone density doesn't peak till

the age of five or six, but at 2 years old a thoroughbred is considered ready

to race, despite the fact that her joints are not yet fully formed.

The use of performance enhancing drugs is rampant, so that these youngsters

build bulk and muscle without the skeletal system to support it. Pinfiring

(hot needles are inserted into tendons to burn the tissue to generate scarring

and presumably stronger fibers) is horribly painful and has questionable

results.

But it's still used in hopes of preventing injury or getting an injured

horse back in training as soon as possible.

And what price do the horses pay for these practices? Simply put, Eight

Belles' fatal injury was no freak accident. Studies show that a typical

racehorse faces a 1 in 43 chance of a fate just like hers.

Among those who survive, a majority are left with permanent joint damage

and tendon ailments, early onset arthritis, and worse.

All of this persists in an industry sustained by the love of the horse,

funded by the millions of people drawn to their majesty. Something in the way

they carry power and elegance in every stride touches that place inside us

that longs for beauty, for the noblest moments in our characters, for the

courage to put heart and soul into that stretch to the finish lines we face

every day in our simple little lives. And for these magical creatures who

inspire so much in us, we want the only the best. We need to believe they're

treated with all the care and concern they deserve.

Sadly, our need to believe does not make it so, and with two shattered

ankles on Derby day one 3-year-old filly shattered our right to cling to the

pretty images that belie the facts.

With one final act of courage, Eight Belles made her greatest offering

while millions watched, as one great media spotlight shed its glaring light on

the true lives of animals we use for sport.

Now, millions of us have an opportunity to revisit our choice to support

the industries that use them in that way. As difficult as it may be, when we

take an honest look at the suffering we fund when we buy into the public face

of the racing industry, we can say ``no,'' and spend our dollars instead in a

way that reflects what's really in our hearts.

Give up a day at the races? A little disappointing, perhaps. But knowing

you no longer support the exploitation of a creature you love will put a

feeling in your heart that's worthy of the most noble of horses -- even Eight

Belles.

.

Jan Allegretti is a Ukiah resident concerned about animal rights and

welfare. She is co-author of ``The Complete Holistic Dog Book: Home Health

Care for Our Canine Companions.''

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