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
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