WAKE UP, KENTUCKY
Aside from Daniel Boone, George Clooney and Loretta Lynn, Kentucky has a great deal to be proud of. The Eastern part has the majestic Cumberland Mountains, roiling Russell Fork River and more artisans than you can shake a painted walking stick at. Lexington’s blue grass, an illusion caused perhaps by the morning mist, is legendary. Here and in Louisville, there are horses in flesh and blood or in stone, bronze, wood, clay. They stand in fields and shops, in restaurants and on pedestals. They are memorialized in picture frames in black and white and full color just about everywhere you look.
That most thrilling of sports, the spring fiesta known as the Kentucky Derby, is a spectacle undeniably flamboyant and grand. The majestic Thoroughbreds are sovereign. As an industry they sustain not only their trainers, owners, veterinarians, jockeys, blacksmiths, they also support everyone from the local hotel bellhop to the hot dog vendor. Yet the price the horses themselves pay is steep. While Thoroughbreds’ life span is about twenty to thirty years, their productive life, on average, is five or six. They are mute and disenfranchised when it comes to pleading their own cause: funds to provide for them until they die.
In their prime, although there is a list of forbidden drugs, ninety percent of them are given Phenylbutazone, “bute,” while they are racing. This is “horse aspirin,” which dulls pain, allowing them to continue running despite injuries. Known side effects include kidney damage, internal hemorrhage and oral lesions, especially in young or stressed horses. Racetrack fatalities, slab and sesamoid fractures, heart attacks and breakdowns are ever-present hazards. While castration is rare among Kentucky Derby potential winners, that’s done too. The filly Eight Belles, who in 2008 broke both ankles and collapsed after her race and was euthanized on the spot, and legendary Barbaro whose shattered right leg led to six surgeries and also ended in euthanization, called attention to the exploitation of horses that is the byproduct of all animal races. Has everyone since forgotten these equine heroes?
The greatest harm, though, comes to the Thoroughbreds when their racing days are over. Having served well while they are able, they have no Social Security or other financial protection when they can no longer earn their keep. They may be sold for low level “claimer” races, shipped from track to track until injuries bar them from running. After their racing days are behind them, if they are too old to breed, show-jump or do simple trail riding, they are sent to “kill auctions.” Too much of the time it comes down to a horrific end in an abattoir.
Once, horses were typically flown to Japanese slaughterhouses. These days more and more are exported for food to Canada and Mexico. The long and arduous trip in a van is in itself is punishment. No hard statistics are available, but it is believed that between ten and twenty thousand Thoroughbreds’ lives end this way every year. (100,000 horses in America also meet the same fate annually.)
Kentucky’s pride is in its equine industry. The state is a wonderful place to visit–with its cherry trees, Shaker Village, fried chicken, friendly folks and friendly Bourbon. While Kentucky can not carry the blame for all equine abuses, the “Horse Capital of the World” should lead the way in correcting the injustices of its major industry. The Racing Commission is taking baby steps in the right direction, but so much more should be done:
The Jockey Club–which registers Thoroughbred births–should make mandatory–not voluntary as is currently the practice– a contribution to each foal’s retirement fund befitting its lifespan.
Magna Entertainment, owners of racetracks in America and Austria, now bars owners or trainers who have allowed a horse to be shipped to slaughter from its tracks. This should inspire a universal practice.
Legislation should also be instituted on the accurate reporting of injuries during training as well as during races.
Research on track surfaces is currently being done, but as with drugging, whipping and other welfare standards, there are not unanimous regulations. Why not?
It’s time for the “Horse Capital of the World” to become the winner it could be. It should provide for its defenseless champions and turn the Derby into a source of dignity and honor instead of shame.