I breathed a big sigh of relief on the evening of Saturday, May 5. The 138th running of the Kentucky Derby was over and the equine ambulance didn’t have to pick up any passengers, no screens were erected to shield the viewing public from tragedy, and everyone made it back to the barn safely.

Oh yeah, and the race … it was a good one. Lots of talented horses, a fast start and early fractions, and then the exciting come from behind win by I’ll Have Another (his name a reference to cookies, not booze, his connections claim). The winning jockey, a newcomer named Mario Gutierrez, cried with joy in his post-race interviews. It was a feel-good moment.

Unfortunately, I just don’t enjoy horse racing like I used to. In the past, I harbored dreams of having my own little breeding operation where I could watch “my” babies grow up and then play a role in their inevitable triumphs on the track. Then two thoughts brought me back to earth: 1) Unless I was willing to live in a dump and generally be more miserly than I am already, I was never going to have the cash reserves necessary for this endeavor (these days any extra money we have goes into my daughter’s college fund, where it will undoubtedly be put to much better use), and 2) I don’t think I could stand losing one of my horses to an injury sustained during a race that I entered it in.

My primary feeling when I catch the rare race on TV these days is trepidation. The horses are still spellbinding in their beauty and athleticism, but my joy in watching them run has been tempered with worry for their well-being. A study that was published in 2011 showed that thoroughbreds and quarter horses racing at three Midwestern racetracks sustained catastrophic musculoskeletal injuries (i.e., broke down and had to be euthanized) at a rate of 1.46 per 1,000 starts. To put it another way, if a typical race day included ten races with ten starters each, at each of these three tracks, 1.46 horses would die from musculoskeletal injuries sustained during racing alone every 3.3 days.

Granted, the superstars that run on the first Saturday in May have led the good life during their three short years of existence, but all that could change with even a non life-threatening injury or a string of losses. I can’t watch even the most pampered of thoroughbreds without thinking about all the horses that run on the smaller tracks around the country and the hard lives they lead and the uncertain futures that await them.

So, I’ll probably continue to catch the occasional big race on TV when my schedule permits, but as for taking a more active role in horse racing — either as a bettor or a potential breeder/owner — I’ll have to pass for now. Racing is making some strides in advancing the welfare of their equine athletes (synthetic tracks, charities and sanctuaries dedicated to retired racers, etc.), but they still have a long way to go.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Cheryl Ann Quigley / via Shutterstock