Sunday, May 4, 2008

When Agony Follows Ecstasy

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) statements are often viewed as a joke (at least by me). Among other things, PETA has started an X Prize-type competition for a commercially viable good tasting replacement for meat. And today, they have called for the suspension of jockey Gabriel Saez, who rode the ill-fated filly Eight Belles in yesterday's Kentucky Derby.

PETA is claiming that Saez should have known something was wrong with Eight Belles. Looking at the most recent headline horse racing tragedy would give credence to their argument. When Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro suffered the injury that would eventually lead to his being euthanized, jockey Edgar Prado immediately got him slowed down, saving the the horse's life for the moment and giving him a fighting chance to live a long and successful life at stud. Saez, on the other hand, was not able to do anything to preserve Eight Belles' chances, and therefore he must have been at fault.

A closer look at the two injuries, however, show how ridiculous PETA's claims are. Barbaro broke ONE HIND leg. Eight Belles broke BOTH FRONT legs. Barbaro could support himself on 3 legs. In the words of the Churchill Downs veterinarian, Eight Belles "didn't have a front leg to stand on." With such a painful injury, and no hope of a successful course of treatment, the only humane thing to do was to euthanize her.

Understandably, PETA has probably never watched a horse race, and has no concept of the connections that are forged in the business. If Saez could have done anything, anything, to help Eight Belles, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have done it. If there was any foul play at all, and I do not believe that there was, the only thing I can conceive of right now is that the owner or trainer gave the horse drugs when she should not have been racing. Again, however, I DO NOT BELIEVE this to be the case. What happened, as I see it, Eight Belles finished second in the race, and on the cool down, had a freak accident in which one front leg hit a weird patch of dirt, breaking the ankle, and causing the horse to go down. This put such a strain on the other front ankle that it, too, broke, leading to the tragedy of a horse being euthanized on the track at Churchill Downs.

I was in Louisville, Kentucky in the summer of 2006, for a conference. I was not going to go to Louisville and not see Churchill, so I skipped a morning's events and took a taxi down tot eh track. I took a few tours around the grounds, and have a horseshoe from the stables behind the track. It is a powerful place, rich in history and tradition. The Kentucky Derby truly is the Great American Race, with all due respect to NASCAR and the Daytona 500. For a tragedy such as this to strike at the heart of such a great tradition is heartbreaking. For PETA to make such outrageous claims in the hope of blatant self promotion is sickening. Let those connected to Fox Hill Farms (Eight Belles' owner), horse racing, and sports fans in general mourn such a tragic and all too early loss.

And one final side note/post script to the Derby. According to Sports Illustrated, the jockey who rode Big Brown to victory, Kent Desormeaux, got back to the winner's circle after a two year slump that included less than 200 wins in 2005 and 2006 combined. Horse racing really is a different animal altogether, when nearly 200 wins over two years is a slump. Driver Richard Petty, the King, had a total of 200 wins over his legendary NASCAR career, giving him the most wins in history, with a margin of 95. The sport of kings has a standard of excellence all its own. That is one of the things that make it special, and keeps it relevant even today.

Two weeks until the Preakness, then three more until the Belmont. And on May 2, 2009, the world will focus on Louisville and Churchill Downs once again, as for the 135th time, the three year olds will run for the roses. Hopefully next time only with triumph, and without any tragedy.