Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Weighing in on the Girl Horse

It's been 72 hours now and I get the impression that an awful lot of people wish we would stop talking about it. I can't stop thinking about her. Eight Belles should not have died.

It would be great if there were an easy answer to all this. If we could find the right person to blame and punish them. I'm not a PETA member, but I'm not a PETA hater either. There is some good and some bad in the proposition they've laid out in Eight Belles Should be the End of Racetrack Betting --
PETA is calling on the racing industry to suspend the jockey and trainer, to bar the owner from racing at the track, and, at the very least, to stop using young horses who are so susceptible to these types of horrific injuries. We're also demanding that the industry stop racing horses on hard tracks and switch to softer, synthetic surfaces, which would spare horses' bones and joints, in addition to calling for a permanent ban on the use of whips.
The youth of the horses is something I hadn't really thought much about. Is a three-year old horse still growing? Is she too young to train so hard? I don't know, but it's a terribly important question. The age of horses who die from racing injuries should be easy data to gather if anyone bothers to keep track of it. The emotional impact of Eight Belles death is undeniable. I'd like to know more about the rational science.

Keeneland has an artificial track. From what I here, the spring and fall meets in Lexington are among the most beloved in the sport. It doesn't seem to have done any harm to the profits, and again, I'd like to see the data - are there fewer injuries on artificial track surfaces?

Whips - yeah, whips are part of racing regalia. The jockeys are whacking those horses hard in the stretch. Does it hurt them? I don't know. I weigh 366 lbs. Would a 36 lb person smacking me with a leather stick hurt me? I'm not sure. I'm not sure it wouldn't be worth it to try racing without them.

Punish the Jockey? The trainer? That's just stupid. Most jockeys are not rich celebrities. If you aren't a racing fan (and I speak with authority on the matter) you can't name three Jockeys. These men and women are among the most exploited and poorly paid athletes in professional sport. The same is true of most of the people behind the scenes in the equine world. There's something else that's true about those people.

They love horses.

My friend Alex has been one of them for a long time. She's a Kentucky girl, just like Mrs P, and Bluegrass women love furiously. Don't be dogging on me when my wife is in the room, and don't be calling horse professionals cruel when Alex can hear - you'll get an earfull (and maybe a jaw full as well.)
How dare you call these people cruel? These people who have a symbiotic relationship with the horse, at work hours before most people hit the snooze button for the first time, and still at work when most people are relaxing after dinner. They care for the horses, and the horses give them all they have in return. I challenge these PETA members, these "animal lovers" to talk to me about one time they have sat with a dying horse (or any animal), talking gently to her as she draws shuttering breaths, praying to God that the vet will arrive to end her pain. Wishing that you could turn away from such a site, but knowing that you can't because the love you feel for this animal tells you that you can't let her die alone, with no kind words, no soothing touch to calm her. Each of those experiences takes a piece of you, and you will never be the same, you will never forget that horse, you will smell her in the air and see her in the shadows, and in the end you are a better person for it. I have been in that very position, and I know most people who have worked on racetracks, farms and vet clinics have had the same experience. How dare you, how dare anyone call that cruel?
Horse workers should be scrutinized, if only to show the world that most don't deserve such judgment. I don't think many would mercilessly drive a horse to it's death. I don't think that's what happened on Saturday.

So if the people with horse smell on their hands aren't to blame, where do you look? Like most white collar crimes, you follow the money. Who's getting rich from this sport?

Track Owners?
As long as it's possible to make fantastic amounts of money from racing the way it is, racing won't change no matter how many protests are held. The marketplace may eventually bring pressure, but there are a lot of reasons to leave well enough alone at every betting window. The industry has self-regulatory bodies in place who are in the best position to analyze the data and do the right thing about unsafe facilities, inhumane practices, and diluted gene pools. The fans who flock to the tracks to make money need to recognize that they drive the machine. Bettors who care only about winning tickets are the ultimate source of revenue for the racing industry. They can change things by staying away from the windows. I'm not naive. There's little chance many of these things will happen. But if they don't, big brother will eventually step in. The government should be the last option - few legislators know enough to act wisely on these matters, and outside pressure has a way of making us Pennsyltuckians circle the wagons.

In Salon, King Kaufman has written a moving piece called Where's the Girl Horse? about his young family's experience on Derby day. Even people who don't hang out in the barn or do the hard and often painful work of birthing and training and euthanizing horses, even ignorant folk like me feel the breathless awe of watching these magnificent creatures break into a run.

And we all share a responsibility for the girl horse's death.

We all share the responsibility to help the very big job of making her fate more rare.

PETA understands that. But their response is short sighted. Even if all their ideas were embraced, I don't see them addressing the root problems. Scapegoats are convenient band-aids to the public conscience, but punishing them rarely heals the wound underneath.

Racing, there are too many people who love you for you to continue doing business this way.

Heal thyself.



1 comment:

  1. Ah, yes. I was pretty furious, wasn't I? I'm not saying that horse racing is without it's problems, or that I agree with everything about the industry. I really do respect other people's opinions, and I wonder if I would have been as angry if PETA had presented facts instead of stories, and had been respectful instead of aggressive.
    At least everyone agrees on one thing- they sure are beautiful!


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