Horse racing is beauty, tragedy

The Baltimore Sun

This time, it happened off-camera, and post-race.

We were spared the footage of Eight Belles' catastrophic injury in Saturday's Kentucky Derby and immediate euthanasia, but no matter. If you saw the 2006 Preakness, the image probably still haunts you: of Barbaro, just out of the gate, falling away from the thundering pack that he was favored to beat, limping off on three legs as his shattered fourth one dangled in the air.

We might not have seen Eight Belles collapsing - after finishing a surprising second, the filly broke both her front legs - but it's becoming impossible not to see the tragic toll underneath the thrill of horse racing.

The one time I saw a racehorse up close was a couple years ago at Rendez-Vous Farm in Parkton, almost to the Pennsylvania line. I was struck by both his magnificence and his fragility, the way his sleek yet massive body was carried atop improbably delicate legs.

"Ah, I knew his grandfather as a yearling," the farm's owner, Debbie Frank, told me that day as she fondly stroked the horse's glowing brown coat.

The horse was a grandson of the great Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner that was trained in nearby Monkton, and had raced as well, until he developed bone chips in both front knees. While his surgeon - "the same doc who operated on Barbaro," Frank said - thought he could race again, the horse's owner brought him instead to Frank, telling her, "I just want him to be a horse for a change."

He came to the right place. Frank's farm is home to Equine Rescue and Rehabilitation Inc., a nonprofit she started 14 years ago to take in injured, damaged or simply aged horses. Frank and her volunteers nurse them to health, retrain them for "second careers," perhaps to be ridden on trails or as companion horses, and then try to arrange adoptions. (You have to live within a 150-mile radius of the farm so ERRI can perform regular inspections and make sure you haven't turned around and sold the horse at auction.)

She gets all sorts of horses - over the years, they've included a Chincoteague pony, a former jousting champion, one-time show horses and animals whose owners have divorced, moved to nursing homes, or just couldn't handle their expensive upkeep any more.

And then there are the racehorses, those that have suffered injuries that are neither life-threatening nor attention-getting in the way of a Barbaro or an Eight Belle.

Working at this stage of a horse's life, it's perhaps no surprise that Frank doesn't tune in to the high-stakes races like the Derby or Preakness.

"I can't watch," Frank said. "They run them to death."

Like others in the wake of the latest high-profile racehorse death, Frank faults the way the animals are bred, raced and pushed to or beyond their limits; she doesn't believe, for example, that horses should be raced before their third year.

There have always been detractors to horse racing - the animal-rights group PETA, for example, quickly jumped on Eight Belles' death to highlight its long-running call for reforms, such as a switch to what some consider the safer synthetic tracks. But because of Barbaro and now Eight Belles, even those of us who are casual viewers, who only pay attention when we have a mint julep in our hands or when the Triple Crown show comes to our own Pimlico, can no longer ignore the sport's tragic toll.

The high-profile injuries are just the tip of the iceberg - a horse trained by Michael Martz, who was also Barbaro's trainer, broke a leg at another race at Churchill Downs leading up to the Derby, an incident that drew little widespread attention until Eight Belles' fatal breakdown.

Also receiving renewed attention was a study by a veterinarian named Mary Scollay, who found there are 2.03 deaths of horses per 1,000 starts on traditional dirt tracks, versus 1.47 fatalities per 1,000 starts on synthetic fields. The study comes with the usual caveats - it was based on a small sample, it's too early to draw conclusions about the relative merits of the two tracks, etc. - and yet who knew there were that many deaths at all? A simple Web search will reveal many, horrible ones - horses' leg bones snapping through the skin, a filly that suffered a heart attack in the home stretch and died.

The blur of the horses and the jockeys' silks, the all-too-rare opportunity to don a lavish hat, the roses or the black-eyed Susans at the finish line - horse racing at its height is a sport of immense beauty. But perhaps it is a terrible beauty.


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