If you’re like most horseracing fans, you’re a casual watcher. You’ll marvel at the magnificent horses tomorrow (and may even TIVO the event or attend a Derby-themed party) but you’re not likely to have much of an opinion about the racing industry or the Derby itself.
If that describes you, you’re like most of the U.S., and consequently, you could be forgiven for not even knowing tomorrow’s event was a-brewing until I just jolted you out of your Triple-Crown fog.
But if you’ve been reading this blog religiously for more than a year, you’ll have a definite opinion. And you'll also know that I harbor tremendous ambivalence for the "sport of kings." To illustrate my two-faced feelings on this, here’s an excerpt from a 2006 post on Barbaro:
If there’s anything that holds up a mirror to our collective love of horseracing, it’s a horse like Barbaro. His saga exemplifies all that we love about the sport: the marriage of athleticism and grace pushed to courageous extremes of strength and endurance. Unfortunately, his catastrophic injury and months of hospitalization also reveal the sport’s bitter reality: horseracing claims lives more often than it produces heroes like Barbaro.
My confession: I’m a veterinarian and I have always loved horseracing. Since I was a little girl, I’ve marveled at Affirmed, cheered for Spectacular Bid, and shed more than my share of tears over Ruffian and Genuine Risk. I’d like to think it was horses like these that gave me the courage I needed to meet my goals.
As a kid, I idolized racehorses like other girls worshiped rock stars. The reality is that in our popular culture nothing says power and prestige quite like horseracing. Why else would the sport outlast millennia? Why else would the otherwise urban-centric rap culture embrace it?
As a student at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, where Barbaro [was] a patient, I reveled in the velvet-rope access to famous mounts just like him. I loved and cared for them like a groupie with a backstage pass. Spoiled rotten and silly, these famous three-year-olds gave new meaning to my sleepless nightlife.
And here’s another passionate excerpt from a 2008 post after Eight Belles was euthanized on the Derby track and Big Brown pulled up lame in the Belmont:
2008’s Kentucky Derby disgusted us all. Its Preakness flew by like a blur. Finally, against the prevailing 'wisdom' of racing’s spinners, this year’s Belmont gave proof to the sport’s lack of soundness. The "cripple crown" played itself out, culminating in the whimper its detractors uncomfortably anticipated.
With overhyped one-liners promising glory as hasn’t been seen since a star lit up the Bethlehem night, Big Brown’s 'inevitable' storming of the Crown careened to a halt in the split second it took his jockey to give up the fight when he found his horse just wasn’t there.
Brilliantly played by the jockey prince. Too bad the cavalcade of frogs behind this amazing horse can’t be persuaded to skulk back into the slime they came from after their very public comeuppance … only this team of racing’s finest could conjure up such a perfect storm of disgrace.
Strong words. But as far as I'm concerned, the vituperation was more than apropos for an industry in dire need of new management, new thinking, new blood, and a new direction. Racing would not be saved by faster horses. Not if they'd be breaking on their spindly ankles for all the world to see.
Since then, we’ve witnessed safety reform that tackles track surfacing, drug restrictions, testing (for banned substances), ambulance requirements, emergency protocols, gate padding, and more. Here’s the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety and Integrity Alliance Code of Standards for 2009-2010 in case you doubt me (not that I'd blame you if you did).
It’s a big step I frankly never expected from an industry so thoroughly steeped in its "traditions," never mind the gambling, drinking and drugging (of the horses, mostly). Could it be that when a horse is euthanized before millions of eyeballs after another one dies of his injuries, the public outcry takes its toll on an already ailing industry? Could it be that the calculus just happened to favor expensive reform … for PR's sake?
So, you ask, will I be watching the Kentucky Derby tomorrow? Hmmmm … probably. But if I do, you can bet I won’t watch it live. There’s only so much I can handle by way of man-on-horse violence. Watching another horse go down? That will not be on my schedule tomorrow.
Dr. Patty Khuly