Saturday, May 03, 2008

Kentucky Derby Coda: Farewell to Eight Belles

Those who know the Radical well also know that she is a handicapper, and loves great horses. Derby Day -- and the day before, the Kentucky Oaks and its undercard, are practically national holidays in the Radical household. Although we did not plan it this way, we also live right around the corner from the off track betting parlor, so there is a whole racing community at my fingertips. Yesterday I cleared a large sum at the Oaks, and went into today's races very optimistic: indeed, financially, it has been a successful weekend, with enough winners to cover and surpass inevitable bad picks and funky trifectas.

But as many of you probably already know, today's Kentucky Derby ended on an extraordinarily sad note. Eight Belles, the only filly in the race and the runner-up, had to be euthanized after breaking her forelegs; this may have happened as she was trying to slow down after she crossed the wire, or her ankles may have started to crack as she was straining to catch Big Brown. In other words, as many horses do, she hurt herself fatally trying to win the race. For those of us who love thoroughbred racing, it is a fact of the sport (much as young men becoming paralyzed, crippled, or congenitally concussed, is a deeply regrettable but not uncommon feature of football), but it is heartbreaking all the same. She was a love of a horse, and our sympathies here at Tenured Radical go out to owner Rick Porter, trainer Larry Jones and all the filly's people at Fox Hill Farm. Second guessers will say she should have run yesterday in the Oaks, the fillies race, but if it was going to happen, it was going to happen: thoroughbreds are delicate and over bred creatures, and when they step wrong it is catastrophic. Replacing all dirt tracks with synthetic surfaces could be a big step to making this a sport that is safer for the animals and the jockeys. In Europe, where all races are run on turf, they have many fewer injuries and fatalities.

Eight Belles is seen in this picture in the Honeybee, under Ramon Dominguez. She was ridden today by Gabriel Saez, who won the Oaks yesterday on Eight Belles' stable mate Proud Spell. Here's the story about today's tragedy in the Guardian. I think that we can only be happy that the accident was decisive, and that she wasn't subjected to medical intervention for months like poor Barbaro.


Anonymous said...

"For those of us who love thoroughbred racing, it is a fact of the sport (much as young men becoming paralyzed, crippled, or congenitally concussed, is a deeply regrettable but not uncommon feature of football), but it is heartbreaking all the same."

Yes, it's exactly like young men playing sports, since those young men are routinely inbred to the point of extreme physical and mental instability, not given any choice about whether or not they want to play this incredibly dangerous game and, of course, fed on oats.

Tenured Radical said...


Whoever you are, if you are saying this is a more complex discussion, would you start it rather than just being sarcastic? Clearly you think horse racing is wrong, but a good argument would be welcome.

Actually, I think the analogy is an interesting starting point for thinking about the ethics of sports more generally, for humans and animals, which is why I included it. Young men who end up excelling at football and other big money sports actually are often treated very badly (although not fed oats), and many of them die each year in practice and in compeition. We have all kinds of evidence that in competitive athletics more generally, young people are routinely abused and forced to accept destructive medical interventions from people who are charged with caring for their health and well-being. A recent series in the New York Times underlined graphically how many parents force their children to compete at high levels prior to their college years in order to gain admission to prestigious colleges or get scholarships; and how many students' are forced to continue devoting what amounts to a full 40 hour work week for relatively small amounts of financial aid, while missing much of the academic experience they are sacrificing for.

So I am willing to accept the argument for why thoroughbred racing is ethically wrong, either separately from, or in contrast to, what humans do to each other, but as yet, the argument needs to be made. And I'm not sure that it is wrong simply because they are animals and "we" are supposedly not.


Paris said...

The Derby is the only sport I make a point of seeking out on TV (have yet to be in Kentucky for it). A synthetic track might have helped a little, but the fact of the matter is, Eight Belle's accident was a more dramatic variation of what horses do every day - sometimes entirely on their own in the pasture. Very strange to happen that long after finishing the race, but like human knees, the construction of equine legs is an argument against intelligent design if I ever saw one.

The accident is in no way an argument against runing a filly against colts; she was the only one in the field gaining on Big Brown at the end and well ahead of the third place finisher. I'd say she belonged in the Derby alright.

DCJ said...

That's a tough question, and very subjective. As a boxing fan, the violence of sport is something I think about a lot. In that case, of course you can argue that boxers aren't forced to do what they do, but then of course there are all sorts of socioeconomic factors that induce young men to gamble so much with their health. Boxers take these risks for the potential glory and material rewards that await them if they succeed. Similarly, a successful racing career would mean a life of great comfort for a filly like Eight Belles, but there's always a risk of a fatal misstep.

I guess it doesn't bother me because I think life in general can be rather cruel, and sometimes our sport reflects that. As for hypatia's comments, I wonder what his/her approach to animals is in other areas of life, particularly in terms of his/her diet.

Bardiac said...

I wonder how dangerous racing really is for the horses? What percentage of horses injure themselves severely in racing (or training)?

And what do the numbers look like for a sport like football?

I'm guessing that a second-class race horse probably has a short life on the way to the knacker's at best, though. Is that ethically different from cattle on the way to the butcher's? Probably not.

One thing for sure: there's a load of money in horse racing, so changing it in any way that reduces that would be difficult, even if people wanted to.

I lost all interest in horse racing after watching Ruffian break her leg on TV. Seemed like I didn't want to even watch.

But it seems like every few years, folks see a horse go down and act like they've just discovered that it happens. Me too, then. But I was a teenager, so it really was a new discovery for me. Not something they talked about in the Black Stallion books I read as a kid.

Tenured Radical said...


A fair number of thoroughbreds who don't make it in racing go on to be hunter-jumpers and dressage horses. There are then also horses who tough it out on the second and third tier tracks.

One thing that must be said for horses: they love to run. When you leave thoroughbreds in the field with each other, they race each other. The question with the big racing game, in my view, is why there are so many fatalities in the US and many fewer elsewhere. And I think that has to do with tougher 2 year-old racing schedules, dirt tracks, and winter racing. In Europe and Latin America, horses are raced far more lightly until they are older, and on turf. Then they often take the winters off; in the US, they often go to Florida or Southern California and keep racing, so that they earn their keep.

So my conclusion is -- part of the problem is how *Americans* run the business. But -- and this is important -- there will be fatalities. And one of the things that seems to me (as an academic now) to be fruitful to think about is -- what is the romance about animals that we can't bear it when they die, but we always assume that people have choices? There is so much human death right now, for what seems to me to be utterly foolish reasons -- how is it we get stuck on preventing the death of a race horse, who dies doing what she loved?

You'll say I don't know that is true, and you would be right. But I look at their ears twitching, and how they skip out to the start, and I do believe that they love it. And of course, I love them, and then am inconsolable when they die, as you were with Ruffian.


Pacifist Viking said...

If the Tenured Radical doesn't disapprove of using animals for sport, and I do, does that make me a Super-Duper Radical? I'm semi-serious, since Animal Rights advocates do tend to earn the label "radical."

When comparing deaths in human and animal sports, I would like to know what data you use for "many." A rather large number of people participate in various sports and games at many levels; I'm not sure what number of deaths would constitute "many." I'd also like to see how sports-related deaths compare to other accidental deaths; I assume sports-related fatalities are much rarer than work-related fatalities, automobile fatalities, etc.

I also think the issue of choice is a big one: while we can debate the socio-economic pressures that might make a human risk himself/herself for a sport, the human still seems to have more choice than the animal forced to participate (even if there are signs the animals do enjoy it). Of course, there are humans all over the world dying for reasons beyond their own choice (like war), but the more apt comparison is between human and animal sports.

I admit, though, that exploitation of animals for sport is a much smaller (on scale and brutality) issue than exploitation of animals for food.

I also concede that I am a big (human) sports fan, though my interests lean more toward pro sports, where the exploitation isn't as obvious (or maybe it's just more open!).

Peace. I'm not trying to argue, just discuss.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear PV,

I think you raise a number of good points - I don't know what I think of most of them, and actually -- you *may* be a super-duper radical, but I think you avoid the trap many radicals (left and right) fall into, which is orthodoxy. So I applaud your blog style.

I think that "choice" is an interesting category for comparison, since it is a quintessentially human category, and yet not a category that all humans share in all things.

I also think the food question is important: although people I respect deeply do not eat animals, for reasons I fully understand I do: my animal-eating ethic is currently highly focused on how the animal in question has been raised and killed, and *what* animal. Mostly I don't eat pig, for example, because I am persuaded that pigs are highly sentient animals, and however they are raised and killed, it feels a lot like eating my own dog. I do eat chickens, but I buy them locally, and they are neither raised or slaughtered in a factory.

I also don't think that horse racing, as an industry, is without fault: horses are often treated badly, drugged, and discarded in ways that are horrifying. But I do think the society that does this also treats its people, its land, its air, and the rest of the globe in callous and exploitative ways. The equivalency argument doesn't work for me for this reason, which is why I raised it in such a flippant way. When we hone in on horse racing (as William Rhoden did in yesterday's New York Times, we are focusing on one kind of exploitation that really tugs on the heartstrings, but not putting it in context. Rhoden asks, "Why do we keep giving thoroughbred racing a pass?" but that question could be asked about nearly every professional sport, and many amateur ones. Or the President of the United States, or the Veterans Administration.


Debrah said...

No question horse racing is a glamorous sport.

And in many cases, a cruel one.

I suppose this reality mirrors all of life.

For both animals and humans, to live is to suffer.

Curiously, I just worry about the animals.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fairly long-time lurker, never commented before -- probably because I so rarely disagree with (or, even if I do disagree, am bothered by) what you say. I usually find your posts very thoughtful, and helpful too. But I feel compelled today to speak up to say that I'm just not buying this defense of horse racing. You keep bringing up the parallel that human animals are also abused in sports, that human animals also often have less than full choice in their lives, that there's so much death of human animals for utterly foolish reasons... Granted, granted, granted! You've also argued that non-human animals are also exploited in factory farms, etc. Again, granted, granted, granted. Indeed, we could go on much longer about all the other ways (besides racing) in which non-human animals are being unnecessarily hurt and all the other ways in which human animals are being unnecessarily hurt, too.

But why does any of this make it OK to breed and train and force these animals to run on command(with whips, crops, bats, whatever, at the sound of a gun, around a designated area for a designated distance -- I call that *forcing*, whatever they love to do when they're *free*), purely for the thrill and pleasure and profit of spectators, at the risk of their own health and lives? Why does force or abuse in other cases lessen the significance of force or abuse in this case?

I agree that outrage over the suffering and death of individual charismatic animals to the exclusion of outrage over all the other needless suffering and death (human and non-human) is hypocritical or at least pretty blind. But I don't agree that outrage over all the other needless suffering and death somehow eliminates the immorality of this particular needless suffering and death.

Anonymous said...

My husband got an oxford blue for boxing-he apparently wanted to measure himself and his ability to bear pain. My younger son really really loves Rugby. He likes the outlet for his feelings and the excitement of the field. My older son hates all of this and just likes to argue one to death.
My point is that in any of the areas,be it sport or academia,what matters is the care that is taken of the participant . Is there respect and appreciation or whoescale exploitation? .Academics and students can be pushed to the point that their brains are broken and some of them seem like they need to be put out of their misery with the competition what is if to succeed. My neighbor's kid is 11 and being primed to fulfill the requirements for a Rhodes scholarship. I hope the kid makes the finish line.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear anonymous 10:00,

You may be right, I don't know. But a couple things: first of all, there is no starting gun. There is a bell, and the gates open, and because they are trained race horses they know that they are to run. The question of whipping is controversial, it's true, but nobody hits a horse with a bat.

And I think there is no doubt that many horses are treated badly, but the areas I would hone in on would be drugs. Both horses and human athletes take a variety of drugs, most of them legal, to mask injuries or make them tolerable, and this is a place where I think there is a clear ethical divide between human choice and animal choice -- although I think I would substitute the word autonomy for choice. Human athletes also injure themselves when they can't feel pain, although because the architecture of their bodies is so different, the consequences are rarely life threatening. If a horse can't stand up, s/he can't live.

But I think this question of what animals would do if they were "free" is a highly fruitful one, although a dubious proposition from my point of view, I admit. It is a romance about animals that is not different from nineteenth century Euro-American romances about Native American peoples (James Fenimore Cooper, for example) in which anxieties about the loss of freedom in an industrializing country played out as a set of fantasies about people who were inherently free in some way. And, as an animal ethicist I was chatting with yesterday noted, the domestication of horses was a decision made centuries ago that can't be undone. Wild horses aren't "happier" in any knowable way than trained horses: they have difficult lives and often starve or freeze to death; they drown, break their legs, and perish in wildfires. So in my view we idealize a kind of freedom for animals that helps soothe our own sense of frustration and loss about the loss of human freedom, but may have nothing to do with how it is best for animals to live.

Race horses -- horses generally -- are often abused. They are often not abused: they are often cared for, loved, and taught to work with humans in ways that appear to make them satisfied and often, it appears, happy.

But I think the Jane Smiley piece I linked to in an earlier comment is instructive, although perhaps not in the way she meant, much as I admire Smiley. Breeding horses for speed at the expense of durability is something that needn't happen except by human intervention; ditto the use of drugs; ditto running on dirt tracks; ditto hard racing schedules at young ages. Eight Belles was bred for speed and courage, which she had in spades. But the fragility of the Unbridled breeding line, if it is well known, should be the subject of attention in the industry if those horses are likely to break down when raced.

Another thing we might ask, for example, is whether the Triple Crown series ought to be radically changed: no horse in the United States, ever runs a race as long as the Derby or the Belmont again; they will never again race on so little rest (three weeks is considered minimal -- high-end trainers consider 4-5 weeks minimal.) Horses may simply be too fragile for a racing series invented in the nineteenth century, when a three year-old was far sturdier and lightly raced.

I could go on, but I won't -- I just found your comments provocative, and they caused me to think more on this question.


Raymond I. Schuck said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion of this topic. I think that a major source of my concern when it comes to this topic is the attitude toward injuries to horses vis-à-vis the attitude toward injuries to humans. It is true that humans have died in other sports events—and, as you’ve noted, in other kinds of human practices as well—but there is (and perhaps at times this is just lip service and reality is not in line with that, but it is at least that lip service) a commitment voiced to doing what it takes to save the life of the human (at least in other major sports practices). For instance, last fall, Kevin Everett of the Buffalo Bills suffered a significant life-threatening injury that meant a significant amount of pain and discomfort potentially for the rest of his lifetime, yet there was a strong commitment to saving his life (a commitment that I believe was very rightfully placed), even as the pain and discomfort that Everett would have to endure was acknowledged as one of the ramifications of that commitment. Yet, when horses like Eight Belles go down, it is said that they “had” to be put down and that this is so because it saves them significant pain and discomfort. That attitude toward life-threatening injuries seems like it’s one of the most prominent places—if not the most prominent place—in which the horses in horse racing are treated very differently than human athletes. As such, that difference in attitude that informs the practice of euthanizing these horses would seem like a very significant basis for concern regarding animal rights.

Tenured Radical said...


Comparisons between animals ad people can so easily veer into tricky territory, and I applaud your clarity. Re: the question of saving people vs. euthanizing horses, however, one place where you locate inequity may be a question of difference between species and the different moral questions attendant to that. As I understand it, horses can't recover from any form of debilitation -- whether it is a broken limb, laminitis or an internal problem -- if they can't stand up. If they lie down for too long for any reason, they develop other problems because of their heavy bodies (they colic, for example -- a situation in which their intestines strangle themselves, or a stomach "flips" and cuts of the blood supply.) If they carry excess weight on the others hoofs for more than a few days, those legs go bad too. And after an accident, a horse can be supported on one splinted leg (as Barbaro did for months while they tried to save his life) but not two. This is why Chelokee walked away from the track on Friday and into an operating room, and Eight Belles could not. So it wasn't just that she was in terrible pain -- but that there was no way to alleviate that pain, ever.

A person who cannot move, or cannot stand, can be managed medically in that condition without immediate catastrophic effects that evolve differently from the injury (although there are attendant conditions), and so there is hope that intervention -- however long it takes -- can lead to a successful recovery, or a new life as a less able person in which one's essential personhood can be retained. And yet, as someone who has had at least one friend make the transition into a less able life, there is often significant chronic pain, as well as complex management that not everyone has the financial and spiritual resources to do successfully.

And we don't know what will become of this football player once the spotlight is off him adn he runs out of money. I don't mean to push the case for similarity between sports -- because the similarities are in many ways not consequential to a critique of the ethical implications of horse racing-- but one of the big issues for professional football today are the large numbers of former players, some of whom were very prominent in their playing days, who are crippled and prematurely senile, and who require expensive care that they and their families can no longer afford. So while I agree with many of the commenters here that horse racing deserves scrutiny on its own terms, I think a "win at any cost" ethic, and the vast sums being made from all professional sports (and many college sports), is a bigger context that needs examining. Horse racing might be, as Lani Guinere has put it, the canary in the coal mine.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous from 10:00 again...

Glad to be of service with provoking thoughts. :^)

A few responses, then. I've obviously outed myself as one who is not very familiar with the details of horse racing (more of which I've now learned from this comment thread). I can see that the details matter for some things. But I don't think the principles at stake in this discussion are affected by whether it's a gun or a bell that starts a race, or what the exact nature of the implement is that is used to prod a horse to run/ run faster. My point was they are running at the instigation of their "owners" and riders, not their own.

I also didn't intend to romanticize the life of wild horses. I can well believe their lives might involve considerable suffering (I'd be curious whether this has anything to do with human destruction of their habitat, but even if the answer is no, I can believe their lives still involve suffering). My only point in talking about what horses do when they're "free" was to respond to this comment of yours:

"One thing that must be said for horses: they love to run. When you leave thoroughbreds in the field with each other, they race each other."

All I'm saying is, I don't think what horses do in a field with each other is enough evidence to conclude that they're happy to run around a track with a jockey on their backs whipping them.

The really big picture issue here, I think, is precisely the one of "domestication" -- which of course applies to more than just race horses. And so, by the way, no claims of purity here. My partner and I have several cats, mostly because daily interaction with non-human animals is crucial to her sanity and happiness (I'm not saying I don't love the cats, too, but I could be happy without them while she could not). We don't consider ourselves their owners, but we don't kid ourselves that we aren't dominating or controlling them in important ways. Some of the decisions we've made have been based on our best judgment of what makes them happier (such as letting them go outside, even though this involves risk and is statistically likely to shorten their lives). Some of our decisions have been made based on what we think is best for their health, regardless of what they seem to want (such as only feeding them twice a day). But in all of these cases, WE are the ones making the decisions, not them. Is this the way it should be? I don't know.

It's really hard to know how to negotiate our responsibilities to non-human animals whom we human animals have literally taken into our homes. I don't know if it's really true that "domestication" can't be undone, but I concede that the issues are not simple. That being said, for me at least, the question of whether they should be bred and trained and forced to perform for our entertainment is not a hard case. (And, to bring back your point, I feel pretty similarly about football.)

Thanks for listening to me work out my own argument here.

DCJ said...

From its origins, it seems to me, sports is fundamentally about brutality; it is a ritualized space in which athletes engage in a war that is both metaphorical and actual. Over time these ritualized spaces have been increasingly regulated, so that the damage done to participants is gradually minimized. Boxing matches can only go 12 rounds, football players wear special padding and helmets, hockey players wear helmets, and on and on. But every now and then, there is a moment of clarity that emerges when the violence of sport breaks out into the open, exceeding the bureaucratic regulations placed there to prevent such events. A horse dies, a boxer dies, a football player is paralyzed for life...even baseball players have been killed on the field of play. When these events happen, often there is a tweaking of the regulations. After Ray Chapman was killed by a pitched ball, many trick pitches were banned and baseballs were replaced more regularly during the course of a game so they would be easier to see. After Duk Koo Kim was killed in the final rounds of a championship bout, boxing limited the rounds to 12 instead of 15. Football has constantly had to renegotiate itself in order to account for various acts of violence on the playing field. And perhaps now horse racing will take a closer look at some of its practices.

But the bottom line is that these events will continue to occur. Animals and humans will continue to be exploited in sports, and this is because sports are still, fundamentally, about the objectification of an individual, be it human or animal. When they enter that ritualized space, they are like soldiers in a sense: they have a job to do and they have to sacrifice their bodies to do it. They are cheered and hated in the same way that other impersonal forces of violence are cheered and hated. That is their objectification. They do it for our amusement, for the vicarious thrill we get out of it, because deep down we don't want to live in a world without at least the potential for tragedy and cruelty. Sports creates a space in which those kinds of passions that are normally considered out of bonds or unacceptable, can be more openly aired in a relatively controlled environment where the potential for harm remains but has been (almost) neutralized. The almost is the important part, because sports have to constantly walk the line between the virtual and the real.

Anonymous said...

Congenital means from birth. To say that football players are congenitally concussed implies they came out landing on their heads. I'm not sure what you were trying to say there -- maybe continually?

Many race horses are euthanized when their careers are over or don't pan out, without breaking any legs. The sport isn't run for the benefit of the horses or their owners, but for the bettors, especially on sports books. It is little different than what happens in dog racing without the aristocratic overtones.

Tenured Radical said...


What the hell did I mean by saying congenital? I was having a senior moment, which blogging seems to promote -- I meant, as you suggest, that their concussions cause their brains to degenerate for the rest of their lives.

I agree with you about horse/dog racing -- but I find this kind of argument uncompelling. What in this world is done for the benefit of animals? And what sport is done for the benefit of the athletes? College sports are unabashedly supported for the benefit of alumni funds, annual giving and recruiting top students who want to go to a cool school. And all pleasure has a cost.

Honestly, I don't see anything wrong with animals working. But I do agree with the critics on this post who object to the workers being abused and discarded.


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