May 6, 2008

At the Kentucky Derby, depravity and decadence are in the blood

The text message I received from former colleague Gene Maddaus was ominous: "Eight Belles - the horse Hillary told everyone to bet on because it was the only filly in the race - broke two ankles and had to be shot." (He later clarified that she'd actually been killed by lethal injection.)

Political ramifications aside, the news update made the prospect of viewing the race, which I'd recorded on my nifty TiVo machine, both alluring and dread inducing. This isn't NASCAR, after all, which feeds on the thrill of knowing that at any given moment the field could erupt into a ball of burning rubber and tumbling metal. We don't root for accidents in horse racing. The specter of death may hang about, but it's considered extremely rude to talk openly about it.

So I wondered how would this play out on the one day non-racing fans pay attention.

After fast-forwarding through 2 hours and 15 minutes of blather and what looked like red carpet interviews with the stars of yesteryear, the race finally began. By the time the horses had reached the final stretch, Big Brown, the favorite, had pulled into the lead. Eight Belles was just behind him. They finished first and second.

A couple minutes later, Big Brown threw his rider. Then the camera caught Eight Belles collapsed on the ground. The announcer conjectured this might have cause Big Brown to spook. Minutes after that, Dr. Larry Bramlage reported to a waiting world that both of the horse's ankles had snapped. The only humane thing to do was "euthanize" her, and that's just what they'd done. This was followed by an awkward cut to Big Brown's ecstatic owner. Finally, a return to the familiar and safe: television commercials.

Whatever your thoughts on horse racing - sport of kings, high-stakes animal abuse - the injuries that ended Eight Belles' life are rooted in something deeper than the day's action. Indeed, it was all but predicted. Racing thoroughbreds are thoroughly inbred, as sports writer Jon Weinbach warned us in a prescient piece in the May 2 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Moreover, all 20 horses in Saturday's race were the progeny of a single horse, another Kentucky Derby runner-up named Native Dancer:

Like hemophilia in the Russian royal family, Native Dancer's line has a tragic flaw. Thanks in part to heavily muscled legs and a violent, herky-jerky running style, Native Dancer and his descendants have had trouble with their feet. Injuries have cut short the careers of several of his most famous kin, most notably Barbaro, a great-great-great-grandson who was injured during the Preakness Stakes and was later put to death. Overbreeding has exacerbated the problem.

"There's a lack of durability right now," says Ric Waldman, the former head of operations for Windfields Farm in Canada, which has bred and raced Native Dancer's descendants. "How much can we keep breeding into these same bloodlines? We're dealing with the law of diminishing returns."


The Preakness Stakes will be run on May 17. Rather than First Call, maybe the racetrack bugler should play Dueling Banjos.

1 comment:

Shintzer said...

Hurray for mutts. "A healthy mongrel," I said to the vet after my border collie/god-knows-what passed her checkup with flying colors. "That's right, the purebreds are the ones with all the problems," she replied.