“Death is delivered pink.” And so begins an ESPN The Magazine article (5/4/09) on the track veterinarian’s unenviable role as killer of the broken. Racing calls it euthanasia, of course, but that’s simply self-absolution. In any event, this is no indictment of the vets, for as long as they continue to hold races, someone must do the dirty work.

The article follows Lauren Canady, the vet at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, early in 2009. In the first race, Canady is summoned, like a medic to the battlefield, by the radio call “A horse is down!” 4-year-old Heelbolt’s ankle has snapped. It is a horrific injury, ankle “dangling and shattered, attached only by skin,” arteries split, and “blood everywhere.” As Canady pulls up, Heelbolt is still calm, the severe pain not yet arrived. On a 0-5 scale, this is a 5. Definite euthanasia.

The scene is set: “His eyes, once coldly fixed on the track, are teary and dilated. His breathing, once quick, has quickened even more. His coat, once shiny from the pumping of oil and sweat glands, has dulled.” The vet goes to work. Stroking “his neck to say good-bye,” she administers a mix of pentobarbital (for deep sleep) and succinylcholine (to shut down the heart and brain).

And then: “Heelbolt falls under the railing, landing shoulder first, his nose in the dirt. He blinks rapidly for 10 seconds or so until his eyes, once beautifully alert, are blank. As his fellow horses, having just finished the race, jog by, his life is measured in shallow breaths — until he is no longer breathing, until he is just 1,200 pounds of expired muscle, his bloody, shattered leg hooked on a railing. It’s hard to know what a peaceful death looks like, but this isn’t it.”

Horses are not, as the author declares, “born to compete,” and heartbreaking stories like Heelbolt’s should not be found on the pages of ESPN. For all our moral posturing, especially concerning animals, passive acceptance of this quote from the article proves that some of our sensibilities remain frozen in antiquity: “…and we’re reminded that one of our country’s oldest sports is one in which the athletes sometimes die during competition.” Deaths on the playing field? Is this 2012 America or 112 Rome? I half expect Rod Serling to appear.

Oscar Pistorius, the “Blade Runner” sprinter who became a media darling at the London Olympics for competing without legs, ran a race last December against an Arabian horse in Qatar, ostensibly to raise disabilities awareness. A sorry spectacle, sure, but noteworthy here because of the merciless flogging administered to Pistorius’ equine adversary. In a 100-meter race that took about 11 seconds to run, the horse was struck at least 20 times, roughly 2 lashes per second. Imagine that.


Pistorius, of course, claims to have been unaware of the excessive beating going on behind him, a beating that would qualify as criminal had it occurred in NY. In one way, however, this video is a gift: Side-by-side, stride-for-stride, two supremely conditioned beings “compete.” One, an autonomous and self-driven embodiment of human athleticism, runs free and easy to the finish line. The other, a half-ton piece of movable property, is set (and kept) in motion by a whip. Here, in but 11 seconds, the idiocy in calling horseracing sport and the racehorse athlete is laid bare for all to see.

Lavalette Gold imploded after crossing the finish line in Thursday’s 4th race at Belmont, and this time the NYRA cameras couldn’t help but capture the ugliness…around the 1:40 mark (Race Replays, Thursday, Race 4). Dead at three. The video, of course, tells another story, one of cover-up and callousness: While the announcer remains dutifully silent – not a word – on the filly’s fall, which was as plain as the nose on his face, the winner’s people gather for their repugnant photo-shoot, proving once more that common decency in these circles is a commodity, unlike the racehorse itself, in short supply.

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Also Thursday, Quarter Horse Bt My First Picture died after breaking down in the 9th race at Evangeline Downs (Louisiana). Priced at $5,000 before the gun, she is now worth considerably less. And finally, on Wednesday, two-year-old For Riches was destroyed on-track at Saratoga Race Course after “sustaining [an] injury galloping.” Galloping. Just a baby, he had yet to run a race.

Tradition. Beauty. Elegance. Billing itself “The Sport of Kings,” racing presents its horses, especially the regal Thoroughbreds, as resplendent, pampered athletes proudly displaying their prowess to admiring fans. The horse, they tell us, is born to run, loves to run, with an instinctive will to “compete.” It is well-crafted fantasy, which major media gladly indulges with disproportionate coverage of Triple Crown pageantry, sappy biopics (“Seabiscuit”), and a ridiculous cult of romance surrounding the sport’s “stars”: The revered Secretariat joined two other horses on ESPN’s greatest athletes of the 20th Century and even adorned a postage stamp.

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Every once in a while, though, the horse people offer some naked truth. In October 2012, NY’s horsemen, presumably feeling self-satisfied, released the results of a new study (commissioned by them): “BREAKING NEWS: Economic Impact generated by the New York Equine Industry reached $4.2 billion in 2011, yielding roughly 33,000 full-time equivalent jobs.” In a press release, Rick Violette Jr, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said, “The Study shows, in black and white, that every horse in New York is a potent job creator. The horse should be our state animal.”

So, there it is. To the horsemen, the horse is money; indeed, as the press release reminds, “horses are one of the leading agricultural commodities in the state,” with each of NY’s 23,100 racehorses representing “an economic impact of $92,100 on the state’s bottom line.” The horse should be our state animal not because he is a naturally autonomous, sentient creature wonderful at simply being a horse, but rather because he is “a potent job creator,” a valuable “commodity.” Tradition? Beauty? Elegance? Well, forgive the euphemism, just a load of nonessential matter from the horse’s digestive system.

Most reasonable racing insiders will concede that less-than-brisk business at the more pedestrian tracks is the result of a flawed product. But when an upper crust venue like Saratoga dips, the search for scapegoats begins. While most blamed the economy (or, yawn, the weather) for Saratoga’s relatively poor showing this summer, racing writer Bill Finley offers his own, rather unique explanation (ESPN, 9/10/13):

“The answer is that the two New York tabloids drastically scaled back on their horse racing coverage. … OK, so newspapers aren’t what they once were. But the combined circulation of those two papers is still at 1.5 million. That’s 1.5 million people who no longer read about horse racing, no longer are reminded every day that Saratoga is going on and that it is special.”

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Once upon a time, “both [papers] gave extensive space to the sport, with charts, entries, race coverage and handicapping analysis.” Now, alas, virtually nothing. As print-media downsizes, racing, because of its declining popularity, provides “an easy target for cutbacks.” And this, Finley says, exacerbates the problem: “Their abandoning racing is a signal to everyone else in the media that the sport isn’t relevant.” So, fan Finley wants NYRA president Chris Kay to reach out “and see if maybe he can’t change their minds.” Seems to me when a “sport” is reduced to begging for coverage, oblivion beckons.

For insight on racing’s descent into irrelevancy, Finley’s own words describing the current Saratoga product are instructive (bear in mind, this is an accomplished writer who means exactly what he says): There was a time, he notes, when “NYRA didn’t dare card races for the flotsam and jetsam [italics added] of the backstretch.” So while we see intelligent, sensitive beings, he sees but wreckage and waste marring a “special” Saratoga experience. Horseracing’s depraved core laid bare, once again.