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The True Villain

Eight Belles wasn’t the only sign of death on Saturday at Churchill Downs.

Horse racing will die too, at least in the United States. It must. I don’t want to say it and it hurts, but there seems to be no other alternative right now.

Sure, there are solutions, fixes if you will, but nobody is going to listen; nobody, that is, with the power to listen.Just last Saturday morning, before the 134th Kentucky Derby, I was talking to my friend. I mentioned that because of breeding, horses are more prone to serious injuries. And by horses, I did not mean $1000 claimers at Yavapai Downs; I meant top-level thoroughbreds.

I also mentioned that the best fillies seemed to be at a greater risk, although I attributed that to mere coincidence. Maybe I said that because whenever I think of a horse breaking down, I think of Go For Wand in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, how she collapsed at the sixteenth poll, got back up, and tried to finish the race, her right-front leg dangling, just dangling. There are few videos I can see multiple times and cry each time, and in horse racing, both occurred in 1990. I cry every time I see Carl Nafzger telling 92-year-old Frances A. Genter that her horse, Unbridled, had won the Kentucky Derby, and I cry every time I see Go For Wand try to get back up and run.

But I said that morning that the only way horse racing could survive was if the breeders’ turned down the money and started caring about the horse. I don’t think it was a premonition, but it might as well have been one.

When Eight Belles died a quarter-mile after the finish line that afternoon at Churchill Downs, so too did American thoroughbred horse racing.

The horses are too big and too fast for their legs. I’ve said it before. Their legs cannot support them. Imagine if everything below your knee was half the size. Now imagine cutting it in half again. Now again.

There you have it. Now try running a mile and a quarter on that. You might get hurt, you might not, but someone will. If your leg was a little bigger and you were allowed to run a little slower, your chances of not getting hurt would be substantially better.

People don’t want a horse that can race for years; they want a horse that can race at three, win a major race and then be retired to stud for millions more than the horse could ever win on the race track. Nobody is breeding horses for longevity anymore. It’s not financially viable.

There is no way you can ask any of the major breeding companies to breed its horses with more of a concern for longevity, for durability. The company would laugh at you.

Why would it sacrifice speed, the speed needed to win a major race, to make sure the horse has the strength to race until it is five? It wouldn’t be worth anything because it wouldn’t be able to compete. And even if the horse became a champion at five, it would have lost two years of prime breeding.

Do you have any idea how much money that could be? Any? It would be more than $10 million, more than any North American horse has ever earned on the race track.

Why would a breeder who only wants to produce the horse that will make him or her the most money take the financial windfall to make a horse that has a better chance of living when it races?

The answer is simple: he or she would not. The chance of injury forces people to retire the horse quicker, thus getting it back into the breeding shed quicker to make even more money.

That is why horse racing will die in North America. Sure, we can ban the whip, switch to synthetic surfaces, create more time in between the major races, but that won’t solve the problem. The problem is with the breed.

Is it just coincidence that 50 years ago, horses ran up to a couple days for the Kentucky Derby?

Dark Star, who in 1953 upset Native Dancer in the Kentucky Derby, ran in the Derby Trial earlier in the week. And he wasn’t alone. While most of the horses hadn’t run in the Derby Trial, many had raced the weekend before, including Native Dancer in the Wood Memorial Stakes in New York. No horse died in the Derby, not ever.

This year, only one horse in the field had run within 20 days of the Kentucky Derby. A horse that had run 21 days ahead of time died.

Yes, it was a fluke accident, but it is not unexplainable. The breed is not meant to race, at least not for a mile and a quarter, at least not anymore. In greed to produce the best possible thoroughbred, the breeders have killed the sport.

Horses can still go six furlongs, maybe a mile. Their legs won’t give out as often. But put the horse at a longer distance and it just cannot carry its weight. And that’s sad.

If we had the technology 50 years ago that we had today, it’s possible that thoroughbreds would have never suffered life-ending injuries. Yet today, even with the technology, the breed is too weak to survive.

The problem will never be fixed.

I love horse racing; I can’t help myself. Nothing is more beautiful than a horse in full stride. But soon, no horse will be bred to be able to do that.

Now, when I said that there are only two horse racing videos that can make me cry, I may have oversimplified, because there are many pictures that can do the same.

Show me any picture of Hialeah Park, or Garden State Park, or Detroit Race Course, or Longacres Park, or Ak-Sar-Ben, all historic tracks that have closed in recent years, and I will sob. Once, they were sprawling with people.

Everyone blames other forms of gambling for destroying these tracks, but it’s wrong. It’s the industry. How many times can you see a horse die before you can’t take it anymore?

I love horse racing, but I mean it when I say I can’t help myself. I don’t want to love it. I shouldn’t love it. And that’s sad. Because when it’s done right, it’s beautiful.

When it’s done like it is now, it borders on murder.

PETA is wrong when it blames the jockey, Gabriel Saez. You think he’s happy?

And Larry Jones, the trainer, you think he is happy? Or the owners?

They would gladly give up the $400,000 they earned that day, give up any money she would ever make, just to get that horse back. To the people in the sport, each horse is family.

But it’s the breeders who are to blame. They couldn’t give two hoots about the horses after they sell them. Sure, they want them to win. It makes the horses that sired them more valuable, but I doubt any of them lost sleep when Eight Belles died.

They’re the ones that PETA should go after; they’re the ones that can fix it.

PETA won’t because they know the breeders won’t budge.

Thoroughbred racing will die in the United States. I might not want to believe it, but it’s true. And when it does, nobody will be left to notice.

By bsd987

I have written for since 2004 and was named a featured writer in 2006. I have been Co-Editor of the site since January 1, 2009. I also write for where I am a founding member of the Tennis Roundtable and one of the chief contributors to both the Tennis and Horse Racing sections.

I am "Stat Boy" for's weekly podcast, Poor Man's PTI.

I am currently a Junior at Rice University majoring in History and Medieval Studies. My senior thesis will focus on the desegregation of football in Texas and its affect of racial relations.

Please direct all inquiries to [email protected]

Burton DeWitt
Co-Editor of

2 replies on “The True Villain”

thanks… although based on what I’ve read this week, I’m not really sure if that is a compliment! Anyway, thanks. It took me five days to figure out my feelings on the matter, which is why I didn’t write it until Thursday.

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