Nine years ago, I was sitting in an off-track betting parlor, with a sawbuck riding on a 19-to-1 shot named Great Eight. One hundred yards from the finish line at Arlington Park, Great Eight had one rival to put away: Mister Fox, a career quitter whose record was full of second-place finishes. The race was in the bag. I jumped to my feet, blocking the screen from all the Middle Eastern guys sitting at the counter behind me. “Nineteen-to-one!” I shouted. “That’s a $40 horse!”
Then, 70 yards from the turning my $10 into $200, Great Eight broke his leg, pitching his jockey over the pommel. “That’s too bad,” a friend said later that night when I told her the story. “It is too bad,” I said. “It’s also too bad about my $10. I gotta look on the bright side, though: This is the second time I’ve lost a bet on that horse. He’ll never take my money again.”
At the time, I was a hard-bitten gambler who went to the races every day. I had seen dozens of horses break their legs, including Landseer in the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile, a breakdown so gruesome that his rear cannon bone snapped in two, so the remains of his leg dangled like a rag as he hobbled after the receding pack. After years of handicapping, I had come to think of horses the way a poker player thinks of cards. To me, a 19-to-1 shot pulling up lame was a calamity similar to drawing a 3 of clubs when you’re hoping to complete a royal flush.
As a horseplayer, I considered myself no less sentimental than the owners and the trainers, who sometimes saddled injured racehorses hoping to grind out one last win. As a handicapper, I came to see this as the same practical attitude once held by a teamster who was running a stagecoach and could not afford to feed a lame horse.
Horse racing is based on this agrarian attitude toward animals, which is why it’s increasingly seen as a brutal anachronism by modern sports fans. In the nine years since Great Eight broke down, Barbaro broke his leg in the 2006 Preakness. He was eventually euthanized after developing laminitis. Eight Belles broke her ankles after finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, and was given a lethal injection on the track. Three horses died during the filming of the HBO series Luck, causing that show’s cancellation. And the New York Times recently ran an exposé, “Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys,” on the alarming rate of equine injuries at tracks around the United States. According to the Times, “3,600 horses died racing or training at state-regulated tracks over the last three years.”
Horse racing’s fatality rate has increased 30 percent or 40 percent over the last 20 years, according to Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board. “Nobody knows” exactly why, Arthur says, but he cites a combination of track surfaces, commercial breeding, changes in training regimens, and a lax attitude toward medication as likely causes.
More horses are dying on the track at the same time the public is becoming less tolerant of the use of animals in athletic spectacles. The concurrent trends are a threat to the existence of horse racing. The first contributes somewhat to the second—after Eight Belles died, a Gallup poll found that 38 percent of Americans supported banning animal racing.
But the changing attitudes toward horses are also a result of changes in American life. In the first half of the 20th century, when racing was one of America’s big three sports, along with baseball and boxing, most fans had ridden horses on farms or seen them pulling carts down city streets. Our ancestors’ relationship with animals was at once closer and less sentimental than ours. In the 1880s, New York City was home to hundreds of thousands of horses. The animals often dropped dead in the street from overwork and stayed there until they were collected by the sanitation department … or simply rotted away. A broken-down horse in 1880 was treated like a broken-down car in 1980.
“You’d talk to old timers, and the track veterinarian carried a gun and would shoot a seriously injured horse right on the track, and nobody said anything,” Arthur says. “We’ve gone from an agrarian experience toward an urban experience. It’s not the horse on the farm. It’s Flicka and the Black Stallion. It’s a paradigm shift for horse racing … that the industry has had a very, very difficult time coping with.”
Before Barbaro, racing’s best-known casualty was the filly Ruffian, who broke down during a 1975 match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. Ruffian’s death led to the end of match racing, but few called for an end to horse racing altogether. “That was a big deal, but there wasn’t the public anger that racing experienced over Barbaro or Eight Belles,” Arthur says. “I think it’s the societal change in attitudes towards animals: ‘What are you doing to these horses?’ ”
Without horses, there is no racing, so the sport has been taking steps to reduce fatalities. One of the most significant is replacing dirt with synthetic surfaces. At Arlington Park, the track where Great Eight broke his leg, more than 20 horses died in 2006. The next year, the track spent $11 million to install Polytrack, a blend of polypropylene fibers, recycled rubber, and silica sand that is more forgiving to a horse’s joints. Fatalities dropped 41 percent—returning to the level of earlier years. California saw similar results after mandating artificial surfaces at all racetracks, with fatalities dropping from 3.09 per 1,000 starts to 1.95 between 2004 and 2009. (Santa Anita received a waiver to return to dirt this year, after trainers complained the synthetic track drained poorly. Horses are now dying there at twice the rate of other California tracks.)
This year, the Jockey Club, a breeders’ organization, established an equine injury database to collect statistics on racetrack deaths nationwide. (Since 2009, the death rate has averaged 1.9 per 1,000 starts.) The database has helped identify trends that put horses at risk of a breakdown, says spokesman Bob Curran Jr. Among them: making numerous starts in the past six months and not having started at all in nine months.
Horse racing is the oldest organized sport in North America. The first Travers Stakes took place at Saratoga in 1864, five years before the first professional baseball team was founded. Will it still be around in another 148 years, or even another 48 years? Now that horse racing’s mass appeal is gone, its future may be as a “studio sport,” in which only the top-tier tracks continue operating and beam their races to gamblers all over the country. That would eliminate the scruffy bullrings and the cheapest claiming races, where the worst abuses take place. “Good horses, higher quality but less racing … would be the best business model,” Arthur says.
I am no longer a serious gambler. I discovered it’s possible to make money at the track, but not nearly enough money to justify the 12-hour days. I’ve remained a fan, though, and I plan to bet an exacta box of Dullahan, Creative Cause, Alpha, and I’ll Have Another at the Kentucky Derby this Saturday. With less pressure to make money off horses, I’m less cavalier about their welfare. I was an avid supporter of the (at least temporarily) successful movement to close horse slaughterhouses, which I only became aware of because I went to the track. Even so, I still consider horse racing more humane than boxing, hockey, or football. Thoroughbreds are engaged in an activity more intrinsic to their nature than hockey or football players. If Barbaro had never been a racehorse, he still would have been running around somewhere. The NFL’s Dave Duerson and NHL tough guy Derek Boogaard would not have launched themselves into brain-damaging collisions if they hadn’t been professional athletes.
The rebuttal to that argument, of course, is that Duerson and Boogaard knew what they were getting into and accepted the risks. Although he’d been bred for racing, Barbaro didn’t, and couldn’t. It’s OK to treat a jock like an animal, if you pay him millions of dollars. But it’s no longer OK to treat an animal like an animal.