21 July 2013

Here's Why I Am Ambivalent about Horse Racing

More often than not, race horse geldings come to a sad, early end. Without the possibility of a second career in the breeding shed, even the best bred geldings not fast enough to win typically end up at killer sales before they turn three.

A few geldings that do win and win sometimes fare better, but only a handful, like my beloved Life Goes On, retire sound and go on to lives as pleasure or show horses. My Li-On started 42 times before being retired at 8. When his speed faded, his owner donated him to ReRun and I adopted him. Unfortunately, this is rare. Only a few veteran geldings like him, horses with good movement and good temperaments find civilian homes.

Most war horse runners suffer the fate of Monzante, a former Grade 1 stakes winner. Monzante died today, euthanized after failing to finish a $4,000 claiming race at a backwater track with a not so good reputation in a business with an overall not so good reputation.

Monzanto was 9 years old and had been, in a familiar pattern, dropping down to cheaper and cheaper races over the years until he his owners had squeezed the final bit of profit out of a failing horse and an obscure headline like this is his epitaph:

As Ray Paulick says in this article, "Compassion, common sense, and decency by any of Monzante’s previous owners or trainers would have stopped the horse’s descent to the lowest rung on the racing ladder, where the endings are seldom good." Some breeders and trainers attach notes to the registry papers of horses they sell or lose in claiming races, asking that they be contacted when the horse's racing career ended, but there's no assurance that anyone will read those notes. So, as would be expected, low end tracks, like low end rodeos, produce more incidents like this. The worst race tracks I know of are the county fair tracks. There, only occasional human intervention saves horses like Monzante. I remember reading of one such case a few years ago. The load of sacrificial Thoroughbreds arrived and someone actually looked at their papers, his eyes popping when he realized the old campaigner who hobbled off the van had once been a Grade 1 winner. He got on the phone and a rescue group saved that old gelding.

The Jockey Club is aware of the fate of the slow and the lamed and some tracks now bar sales to kill buyers, but much more needs to be done to at least provide humane euthanasia for those former and failed race horses that aren't suitable for second careers. The idea of setting aside one percent of all purse money to take care of these old guys is an excellent idea.

That however would mean a tad less money for those racing, and, as the details of the Equibase chart show, had Monzante staggered to a second or third place finish, he could have won a grand or so. After all, race horses are just money making tools, right? A grand's a grand, especially for those at the bottom of the racing ladder.

Casino tracks present another sort of problem. I've seen purses so large that owners would be tempted to enter their unfit, unsound, and/or doped up horses. To their credit, at least one track--can't remember which--has changed the claiming rules so that should a horse break down during the race the claim is voided. That staves off a bit of temptation, I hope.

Still, on days like today, I hate horse racing.


Evangeline Downs, a casino track, is not accredited by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
"NTRA Issues Statement on Monzante's Death'

From the Daily Racing Form: "Evangeline Downs: Monzante's Death Leads to Investigation"

This too from the DRF: "Monzante Deemed 'Salvageable' before Being Put Down, Regulator Says"

Now that last one will undoubtedly spark discussion. At least the owner, for whatever reasons, had the gelding euthanized. I still remember reading of one TB in California. His trainer sent him to a killer auction on three legs, the fourth one dangling with a fresh break.

July 24, 2013: "Trainer: Monzante Euthanized Due to Injuries"

July 25, 2013: "LA Plans No Further Action in Monzante Case"

08 July 2013


Below is the September 2, 1974 issue of The Blood Horse. On the cover, the great filly Ruffian. She died July 7, 1975, after breaking down in a match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.

I remember feeling a chill when I saw this cover. I immediately showed it to my husband and said, "Doesn't this look like a sesamoid fracture waiting to happen?" The photo troubled me so much, I kept this magazine, the only one I saved from my one year subscription. I kept looking at those incredibly long pasterns, those delicate legs, delicate even by race horse standards.

Ruffian came by her bones honestly if not fortunately. Her sire, the infamously fragile Reviewer broke down three times during his racing days. Even retirement didn't save him. Only 11, he broke his left hind leg while in his paddock and had to be put down. Ruffian's dam Shenanigans was a daughter of Native Dancer, a wildly superior race horse, but also a horse associated with unsoundness.

Given all this, I was quite worried when the gates flew open for the match race. The details of the attempts to save her still trouble me almost as much as watching this short, non-graphic clip of her breakdown.

About the best thing I can say about the Monday she died was that no one I worked with was surprised. I'd told my co-workers about the difficulty of repairing broken bones in equines before this race.

I'm not against racing. A few accidents will happen, but American race horse breeding is equicidal. We breed horses too delicate to exist with other horses too delicate to exist in order to get even faster horses too delicate to exist. Ruffian was one example. Eight Belles was another. That sweet filly broke both ankles while pulling up after a second place finish in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Unsurprisingly, Eight Belles pedigree was festooned with the name Raise a Native, he by Native Dancer.

Yes, American race horses fly--but too often they fly apart.