But I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.
I have been uncomfortable about horse racing as a sport for many years. "They love it," people say. "They were born to run. This is what they want to do."
Oh, really? Tell you what, let's put some horses in a great big pasture and see which ones decide to come up to you, beg you to put a saddle on 'em, and run until their noses bleed and their mouths foam from the exertion. Then I'll believe they love it.
When I was young, I loved the excitement surrounding the Triple Crown. Secretariat had everyone at fever pitch. People who didn't know a thing about horse racing started watching regularly, including me. Then came Ruffian.
She was my special favorite, because she was a filly. A exhibition race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure was arranged, a race that didn't really have any meaning, except for people to watch and bet on. And Ruffian, undefeated, racing racing racing, was suddenly pulled up. The racing stopped. I couldn't figure out what had happened. I was in fifth grade.
What had happened was that her leg had shattered. Both jockeys later said that the noise was as though a board had splintered.
She was loaded into a truck and whisked away. When I found out they'd had to kill her, I was sick, sick to the bone, and I felt...guilty.
Here's an account, from a pro-racing page, no less, of Ruffian's final hours and the fate of her parents:
The once-cheering crowd now watched in stricken silence as the ambulance sped toward the filly and veterinarians attended to her. Heroic efforts were made to save Ruffian, although the early prognosis gave her only a 10% chance of survival. A pneumatic cast was applied before she was loaded onto the ambulance and another was applied in the barn area. A team of four vets and an orthopaedic surgeon laboured for a total of 12 hours to accomplish the impossible. During the operation, Ruffian was twice revived after she had stopped breathing. Finally the surgery was done.
However, the worst was yet to come. The anesthesia wore off and the filly awoke, disoriented, confused, and in pain. She thrashed about wildly despite the attempts of several attendants to hold her down. She fractured the new cast and caused even greater damage to the fetlock. Knowing that she could not endure further surgery, the veterinarians put her mercifully to sleep.
It is ironic, and perhaps even more than mere coincidence, that Ruffian's parents would suffer her same fate and would both be dead within two years of the death of their great daughter. Shenanigans was undergoing emergency intestinal surgery, and upon waking from the anesthesia thrashed about, breaking two legs. She was humanely destroyed on May 21, 1977. Only a few days after her death, Reviewer suffered a fractured hind leg in a paddock accident at Claiborne Farm where he stood stud duty. He survived the initial surgery, but 15 days later when the cast was changed, he emerged from the anesthetic and became unmanageable, doing irreparable damage to the injured leg. Reviewer was euthanized on June 21, 1977.
This is a picture of beautiful Ruffian:
So. I started to wonder then, and I started to read. Horse racing has been banned in Belgium as an act of cruelty. Here in the States, people expect the state racing commissions to police the sport and prevent any abuse or cruelty. Well, when a share of the revenue from horse racing goes to the state, why would they?
From an anti-racing page:
Around 800 racehorses die each year from fatal injuries suffered on US racetracks. An additional number of approximately 3,566 sustain injuries so bad that they cannot finish their races. Several breeding and horse handling abuses contribute to the great risk of death and injury that horses face.
Breeders often race horses as young as two. These horses lack fully developed bone structure, and are more likely to suffer injury.
Due to selective genetic pairing and breeding, many racehorses are born with fragile bodies to begin with. Selective breeding does not provide the gene pool with diverse enough genetic material to avoid genetic defects that arise largely as a result of inbreeding. Because jockeys race horses year round on hard tracks, which give less and are therefor harder on a horse’s joints and bones, horses incur greater injury risk. Large corporate breeders race their "investments" too often in pursuit of profit.
To keep horses racing through pain, handlers administer Lasix and Bute. These pain relievers numb pain, but do not treat the injuries that cause pain. Consequently, these injuries get worse. Horses that suffer severe injuries as a result of drug induced racing get sold to slaughterhouses, a more profitable venture for breeders than euthanization. These horses suffer long cramped rides to the slaughterhouse without painkillers, in unfit trailers. Handlers also use Lasix to mask the presence of illegal substances such as steroids.
I don't think that those who race horses intend any cruelty (well, most of them don't). I think most breeders, jockeys, groomers, handlers, etc., truly come to love their horses, and they're convinced that the horses love what they're doing in return. I think that's ridiculous. It's wishful thinking; it's willful ignorance.
I've ridden horses all my life, so in that sense I've certainly used them for my enjoyment, possibly at the cost of theirs. I eat meat. I don't belong to PETA. I get caught up in a good story, even when it involves horse racing. I'll probably go see Seabiscuit but I won't go see it as history. It'll be more like Gone With the Wind, you know? The slaves were all happy and well-treated--why, they even wanted to stick around to serve after they'd been freed. I'll look at Seabiscuit as myth, a willing suspension of disbelief, a fairy tale. And I will feel complicit in an act of support for an industry I deplore. This movie will probably spur new interest in horse racing. In fact, it's already possible to find myriad articles from those in the racing industry breathlessly hoping that that will be the case. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has been contributing money to the promotion. The book has already been credited with a rise in track attendance and, of course, betting. And so it will continue.