Patricia Nell Warren

Eight Belles: emotion vs. common sense

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | May 06, 2008 1:15 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: inbreeding

The whole country is worked up over Eight Belles' tragic death in the Kentucky Derby last Saturday. From songs dedicated to the filly on YouTube, to message boards with thousands of posts demanding that horse racing be banned, everybody is weighing in. In the Washington Post, sports columnist Sally Jenkins let the racing industry have it with both barrels. Even the Presidential campaign was briefly forgotten. Many people are asking, "Why did this happen?"

Bilerico is a good place to shed my tears for Eight Belles, and offer my two cents about why it happened, and what I think should be done. Many of us LGBT folk are animal lovers, so we are aghast at the news footage of that magnificent horse laying dead on the track. In a time when Americans' humanity to other humans is being tested to the extreme, and stretched horribly thin in some cases, it's important to remember that our humanity to animals also weighs in the balance.

PETA is having a field day. Their strategy is to get jockey Gabriel Saez investigated, perhaps banned from racing for life. They allege that the filly's injuries happened during the race, that Saez whipped her "unmercifully" and didn't stop her right away when he knew something was wrong. But PETA's strategy is long on emotion, and short on facts and common sense.

A little historical background

Uproars over shocking breakdowns at horse races are nothing new. The first big one in modern times happened in 1975, when the great Ruffian broke a leg during a match race and was put down after surgery failed.

Ruffian's demise was the first ominous sign of genetic problems surfacing in the breed. As a lifelong horse lover who grew up in the livestock industry, in a family that used to be in the racing game, I love the sport...but I'd be among the first to admit that horse-racing is in big trouble today because of these genetic problems.

Many people in the game aren't willing to admit it publicly, but they know in their hearts that the Thoroughbred horse is plagued with a whole array of growing concerns. One problem is low fertility and frequent breeding failure. Another problem is lungs that often bleed during a race. A third is bones that break easily. Indeed, poor fertility and a fragile skeleton in purebred animals are known to be the direct result of too much inbreeding. Often breeders will mate related horses to each other to ensure that an ancestor's speed, or ability to run a certain distance, or extra-large heart, will be captured in a new foal.

Inbreeding isn't bad in itself, but it has to be done with caution. In her website "Pedlines," Thoroughbred pedigree authority Ellen Page calls for common sense. She says, "By all means, inbreed to great families. This is a priceless tool. But don't inbreed mindlessly. You are creating a living thing." Page analyzes one prominent bloodline in Ruffian's pedigree that had become notorious for "soft bone."

Since Ruffian, a growing chorus of voices within the sport have called for change -- especially after Barbaro's disaster during the 2006 Preakness.
Yet the sport resists change, so that today big racing events often continue to be marred by these public tragedies. Some defenders of the status quo take the attitude, "It's a dangerous sport -- these things are going to happen."

Yet the pace of injuries has picked up. Last fall, the Breeder's Cup World Championship -- racing's most prestigious international meet -- saw not one but two breakdowns in front of the TV news cameras. One horse survived the career-ending injury, but the other, Pine Island, was euthanized.

Now we have Derby winner Big Brown, who is inbred too. He's being called a super-horse, a possible Triple Crown winner. His spectacular closing speed, the ease with which he annihilated his competition at the Derby, suggests that his breeders may have captured the biggest genetic prize in Thoroughbreds -- the extra-large heart known to trace back to 18th-century British champion Eclipse. But did they also capture enough bone strength for this horse? As Ellen Page says, "If the legs can't hold up the heart, it ends badly." I will hold my breath for Big Brown.

Time to Get Over It

Racing is not the only global billion-dollar sport to have found itself in hot water over the value it put on life. In auto racing in the 1960s, the technology of speed was outrunning the technology for driver safety. Dozens of drivers died in spectacular crashes. Here again, some shrugged and said, "It's dangerous out there -- these things happen." By 2001, things came to a head in the Daytona 500 when NASCAR idol Dale Earnhardt became the fourth driver to be killed in a 9-month period. In the midst of a multi-car wreck, he hit the wall at 150 mph and suffered massive injuries.

Fans reacted to the death of their icon with such fury that the motorsports establishment realized -- belatedly -- that it was time to rethink that old "these things happen." In the next few years, Formula 1, Indy and NASCAR racing accomplished a great deal on race car safety. Today drivers walk away from wrecks that would have killed them just a few years ago.

So the horse-racing industry needs to get over the old fatalism as well. They won't be in business much longer if they don't fix their horse so it's easier to breed, with better health and stronger bones. Some figures in the sport are deep in denial, and don't want to change the entrenched breeding and business practices. They are not cruel people, and I know they love their horses. But if they don't act soon, they will face the same public fury that auto-racing authorities faced. In fact, they may already be facing it because of Eight Belles.

Worse -- they may be underestimating the speed with which a genetic problem can reach critical mass. When I was a ranch kid in the early 1950s, I happened to witness how America's purebred beef-cattle industry went through a complete wipe-out because of a recessive gene for dwarfism that was ignored at first. It quickly spread because of over-enthusiastic inbreeding to a few popular bloodlines.

PETA picks a bad strategy

PETA faxed a stiff letter to the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, demanding some immediate changes -- but they didn't demand that horse racing be banned. That was smart of them. In a pitched battle with this sport, they'd lose. Like motorsports, horse racing is a global industry commanding billions of dollars in corporate sponsorship, investment and betting revenue, so it's a powerful lobby. States where the sport is big, like New York and California and Kentucky, would fight tooth and nail to protect their revenues from the betting handle.

But PETA's overall approach is flawed. They practice a politics of emotion, when common sense is a better tool for helping animals. The other day, emotion led PETA to make erroneous statements about the race, as they tried to make a cruelty case against the jockey.

Was Gabriel Saez at fault? At a press conference, Eight Belles' trainer Larry Jones stated that the jockey did his professional best under the circumstances. When the news footage is viewed, you can see the field come pouring out of the far turn, five or six wide, and Eight Bells can be seen surging ahead of them, leaving the pack well behind. Saez is not whipping her -- he knows his horse is on a roll but he knows he isn't going to catch Big Brown, so he is just riding with both hands, going for 2nd place. As she comes down to the wire, Eight Belles is still running normally, ears pricked.

It was during the gallop-out, Saez said, that he felt Eight Belles starting to move "funny." He said, "I tried to get her to stop." But stopping a thousand-pound horse moving at nearly 40 mph is a little like stopping a freight train. She was on fire and refused to slow much till she rounded the club-house turn. In the news footage, you can see how her front legs finally give way, first one, then the other, and she slumps to the track.

The problems with the Thoroughbred horse won't be fixed by emotion, or by dropping an atom bomb on one rider. I am 100 percent in favor of humane treatment of animals, and support many things that PETA has done. But PETA needs to get more educated about the sport they're attacking. They need to put their energy into supporting a real solution -- the adoption of common-sense breeding practices that will undo the genetic harm and produce a stronger, sounder horse -- not only in the U.S. but all over the world. This would be the smartest, most effective use of PETA's influence and financial resources.

In their fax, PETA demanded that whipping be outlawed. There are already strict rules about use of the whip, and jockeys are set down for violating.

In addition, PETA also demanded a switch to synthetic track surfaces, that are allegedly lower-impact than the dirt tracks so basic to U.S. racing. A number of U.S. tracks have already done that. But the poly tracks are a new technology, and nobody knows what their long-term effect will be on horses' legs. And poly tracks shouldn't be a substitute for a common-sense solution to the breeding problems.

So farewell and hail to Eight Belles. My sympathies to her owner, her trainer, her rider and everyone else closely associated with her. I hope this gallant filly's death will finally be the trigger for major changes in the sport, that can benefit generations of race horses to come.


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It's always sad when a horse racing accident happens.Im sure people with more knowledge than PETA will determine what happened and take corrective action. Personaly I wouldn't trust PETA to tell me the correct time of day. Most people who watch the Tripple Crown never watch a race before or after.If they did they would soon see what the joy of racing was all about. There however is way to much inbreeding that is for sure time to let the muts in the gene pool some good strong Ranch horses wouldn't be bad at all.My girl friend is a working cowgirl and rides horses daily and those are not any weaklings.Oh yeah they work on dirt to as well as haveing to chase down cows.

Hi Patricia. Great post. I don't know anything about horse racing, but my grandpa used to breed and raise Arabians. Horses are amazing animals. This is such a sad story.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 7, 2008 2:12 AM

My heart goes out to the jockey as much as the horse. They have a tough career and if you get labeled "bad luck" for the horse you could be out of work period. Besides, being only human on race day, when seconds seem to be a lifetime, and everything is adrenalin, he could have made a mistake.

I really don't see what people see in horses. They just seem like giant rats to me, without the independent thought.

It just seems strange that there's all this out-pouring of grief over a horse while everyone chomping down on their bacon cheeseburgers with a side of chicken nuggets and jello for dessert.

Cows - now there's a noble animal. I could get behind worshiping them for a while.

Alex, I agree. There's not much consistency in the public's emotionality about animals. This is why I don't support PETA's politics of emotion.

There's little humane treatment for slaughter animals in today's factory-type farming, especially given that the most of the meat for those fast-food burgers comes from outside the U.S., where our regulations on humane slaughter don't even apply. But most Americans just don't want to know where those nuggets and chops come from, even though they get in a big uproar about the occasional headline issue like Eight Belles.

For centuries, surplus horses have been viewed as a protein source and slaughtered for meat in various parts of the world, especially Europe. But most Americans have an emotional taboo against eating horse meat. Today many emotion-driven animal activists have been getting our legislators to stop all U.S. horse slaughter and export of horse meat. What the activist emotion has done, however, is create another horrible new problem. With the boom in pleasure horses and backyard horse breeding, the U.S. now has a horse overpopulation problem. And with recession now kicking in, many poorer horse-owning families have no legal way to dispose of horses that they can't afford to care for any more, except turn them over to humane societies and horse-retirement farms. And these facilities are pretty much crammed to capacity with horses.

So surplus horses now get turned loose on the roadside to fend for themselves, or they simply are left to starve to death in corrals or bare pastures. The problem is especially bad in states like Texas and Kentucky with large horse populations. Local animal cops are confiscating more and more half-starved horses from people who stopped caring for them.

Much as I love horses, I have no issue with horse slaughter, as long as it's done humanely. I also have no issue with people eating horse meat -- especially in a time when meat protein is at a premium in poorer parts of the world and people are starving there. If Americans don't want to eat horse meat, we should be exporting it to where it's needed. Europeans watch us pursuing this ridiculous emotional policy over here, and they think we are crazy...and we are.

We also need some legal limits put on horse breeding, since it's becoming a problem, as unrestricted dog and cat breeding has already become.

"Giant rats." Hmmm. I've never heard that one before. (If you were ever kicked by a horse, you'd know it wasn't a rat.) Maybe someday the horse magic will nudge you. A good relationship with a horse is a wonderful thing. Meanwhile... hey, I agree with you about cow worship. There needs to be a helluva lot more respect for the beauty and importance of cows. The ancients had it right, with their Great Cow Goddesses and Horse Goddesses and Swine Goddesses...probably even a Chicken Goddess here and there...because they all kept us fed.