At the 2008 running of the Kentucky Derby, a three-year-old filly named Eight Belles taught millions of onlookers about the other side of horseracing. Just after she crossed the finish line—second in a field of colts—she fell to the ground with both front ankles shattered.Minutes later, as the race’s winner received his blanket of roses and a check for nearly 1.5 million dollars, Eight Belles’ life ended in excruciating pain and terror.
For most of America the incident was a stunning horror in a springtime ritual known for mint juleps, Derby parties, good food, and a racing pool. But the tragedy should have come as no surprise. Horses fall to fatal injuries by the scores at racetracks each year. Thousands more face lifelong injuries due to routine practices designed to get the most wins from the most horses while spending the least amount of time and money.
Everything about the life of a racehorse is planned to optimize earnings in a world where time is money—and horse feed, and training bills. While most mammals’ reproductive systems are programmed to give birth on a warm spring morning, thoroughbred mares are bred (often wearing hobbles, and after being brought into heat through artificial hormone manipulation) so that foals are born as soon after January 1 as possible. In the world of racing, every horse celebrates a birthday on the first of the year, so a three-year-old is a three-year-old whether he’s born in January or July. To gain as much age and size as possible in time for big races like the Derby, a foal must hit the ground early in the year, even if that means his first weeks are spent in a foaling stall or the harsh weather of winter, rather than running on spring grass as he was meant to do.
Training, too, must start early if a horse is to be ready to race before too many dollars are spent buying feed or paying stabling expenses. A young horse begins training around the age of eighteen months, when her body is about as well developed as an eight-year-old human. That means learning to carry a rider on bones that are still growing, with tendons that are ready for a frolic with a playmate, not for the kind of extended weight-bearing runs necessary to build strength and endurance for the competitions to come.
In the non-racing world, a horse is considered mature at the age of four or older. Bone density often doesn’t peak till the age of five or six. But at two years old a thoroughbred is considered ready to race. Despite the fact that the animals’ joints are not yet fully formed, training is stepped up to push the young body and mind to their limits, the only way to increase strength and stamina—well, not the only way. The use of performance enhancing drugs is rampant, so that these youngsters build bulk and muscle without the skeletal system to support it. Pinfiring, an ancient technique in which hot needles are inserted into tendons to burn the tissue to generate scarring and presumably stronger fibers, is horribly painful and has questionable results. But it’s still used in hopes of preventing injury, and by trainers who believe the irritation will make injuries heal faster than nature would allow.
By the time three-year-old horses race at places like Churchill Downs, where everything is on the line for the fame, fortune, and careers of all the humans in their midst, the young equine bodies that have survived to this point too often bear the mark of too much stress too early and too often. The intensity of the race at the Derby—and for that matter at any track in any city around the globe—drives the horses to run with the herd with all the passion and spirit that ignites the imaginations of the millions of people who think of it all as sport.
And what price do the horses pay for these practices? Eight Belles spoke for all of them as she lay on the track that sunny afternoon. While millions watched, amid all the pomp and circumstance, she gave us a crash course in the true cost of this “sport of kings.” Her fatal injury was no freak accident. There’s nothing unexpected about it. The hard truth is that, mint juleps and racing forms aside, a typical racehorse faces a 1 in 43 chance of a fate just like hers. One 2007 study of thirty-four tracks across the country reported 2.03 fatal injuries per 1,000 starts on dirt tracks, and 1.47 fatal injuries per 1,000 starts on a synthetic track. With an average racehorse logging 16 or 17 starts in her lifetime, the odds are that more than 2% of those horses will suffer life-ending injuries just like Eight Belles did. Among the horses who survive, the ongoing assault on their young, developing bodies leaves a majority of them with injuries that affect them the rest of their lives. According to the Thoroughbred Times, 70% to 80% of young horses in training develop bucked shins. Thousands suffer permanent joint damage and tendon ailments, early onset arthritis, and more.
All of this persists in an industry sustained by the love of the horse. It’s true that some diehard horseracing moguls are driven by greed and ambition. But most of the people who love the Kentucky Derby, the races at the county fair, or just a Saturday night at the track are drawn to the majesty of the horses. Something in the way they carry power and elegance in every stride touches that place inside each of us that longs for beauty, for the noblest moments in our characters, for the courage to put heart and soul into that stretch to the finish lines we face every day in our simple little lives. And for these magical creatures who inspire so much in us, we want only the best. In fact, we need to believe that they’re treated with all the care and concern that they deserve.
Sadly, our need to believe does not make it so, and with two shattered ankles on Derby day one three-year-old filly shattered our right to cling to the pretty images that belie the facts. With one final act of courage, Eight Belles made her greatest offering while millions watched, and for a moment one great media spotlight shed its glaring light on the true lives of animals we use for sport. She died as a direct result of the practices that drive an industry built on animals as entertainment.
Now, millions of us have an opportunity to revisit our choice to use them in that way. It’s not that we’re unkind. We’ve just been uninformed. Our most serious failing is our willingness to remain uninformed. It’s much easier to assume things are okay, that the animals are treated well, that their best interests are the priority. When we find our own courage to open our eyes to the truth behind the ceremony, we’ re forced to reexamine the choices we make.
As difficult as that may be, it brings us to a place where we can think of Eight Belles—and countless others like her—not with horror, but with the peace that comes from standing in our own integrity by making choices that really do reflect what’s in our hearts.
Give up a day at the races? A little disappointing, perhaps. But knowing you no longer support the exploitation of a creature you love will put a feeling in your heart that’s worthy of the most noble of horses— even Eight Belles.
[A version of this article appeared in The Press Democrat on May 10, 2008.]