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.