The Hacks Are In

The saddest event of the weekend was seeing the filly Eight Belles run a gallant second at the Kentucky Derby only to collapse while galloping out, and thus, being euthanized.  Her death marred what was a sensational perfomance by Big Brown, who despite starting from the 20 hole, dominated this race much like Smarty Jones did in 2004 and Barbaro in 2006.

As usual, those who watch three to four horse races per year are calling for drastic changes to how horse racing conducts its affairs.  PETA sounded off, calling for ending three year old racing, and eliminating the use of whips by jockeys in races.  But, that’s what PETA does and I will tip my hat to them for theit consistency.  They love animals and I would have been disappointed had they said nothing in the wake of Eight Belles death at the racetrack.

Horse racing is in peril and has been for quite some time.  It’s popularity has decreased dramatically over the years thanks to cable TV, regional sports TV, and OTB among others.  Going to the track is not what it used to be as times have changed.  But, unlike other sports, horse racing still has at least one day when America watches, a mini Super Bowl if you will.  The Kentucky Derby is that day. Saturday’s coverage on NBC drew a 9.5 rating, meaning that almost 10 percent of the country watched the event from Louisville’s Churchill Downs.  That rating was more than three times better than the Kobe Bryant Lakers win over the Utah Jazz.   And, when a horse goes down, it leaves a sick feeling for those who tuned in.   In the last seven Triple Crown races from 2006 on, we have seen two catastrophic injuries.  Barbaro, after winning the Kentucky Derby in 2006, pulled up with a broken leg at the Preakness and despite a gallant fight, finally succumbed to his injury.  Now, five races later, the filly Eight Belles has to be put down on the track after the sport’s biggest event.  That is not good for an industry that is trying to stay afloat in America’s consciousness.

What bothers me and those who like horse racing is the response of the average hack, the one who only watches the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and if there is a chance for a Triple Crown, the Belmont.  Then, after taking the summer off, they may tune in for some of the Breeder’s Cup in Ocotber.  These casual horse racing watchers and full-time hacks are calling for horse racing to prevent this from happening again.  That will not happen.  Horse racing is a dangerous sport.  Often, horses break down, and moreover, sometimes jockeys get injured with several winding up paralyzed as a result of a nasty spill. 

There are things that can be done to try and prevent this, but nothing will eliminate it from happening in the future.  PETA can cry and cry, but politically, horse racing is here to stay.  It is a billion dollar business and states rely on taxes from racetracks for their budgets and revenues.  Take New York for example.  They have year round racing.  How many people go to Aqueduct Racetrack in early February to watch cheap claiming and allowance races?  Very few, but New York State insists that racing take place because it provides much needed for revenues for the state.  States have spent years wrestling with casino gambling, but just about every state has a racetrack or two. 

Horse racing will press on.  Eight Belles death might speed up the case for converting more dirt tracks to the new synthetic or PolyTrack surfaces, which thus far, have proven to reduce the number of breakdowns.  Trainer Nick ZIto is not a fan of the synthetic surface, saying that he doesn’t want his horses “running on something that is found in an attic,” but if the surface proves to safer, Zito and his brethern may not have a choice.

The biggest test for PolyTrack will come this October, when the Breeder’s Cup races are run at Santa Anita Park, which installed PolyTrack in 2007.  If the best horses win, then we may see the Kentucky Derby run on the stuff from the attic. 

The more I think of Eight Belles, the sadder I get.  She ran a very game race and deserved another day in the sun.  My hope is that she was greeted in horse heaven by the great filly Ruffian, who simply told her, “atta girl.” 

Horse racing will never be clean from these injuries, but it needs to be clean three times per year, so American can celebrate the triumphs, not lament the tragedies. 

John Furgele

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