As you’ve probably noticed, I am now regularly reporting all Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses vanned off American tracks after actual races (training accidents are closely guarded secrets). One pro-racing reader took umbrage at the implication, arguing that not every horse who is vanned off is destroyed. While technically true, in an industry that does all it can to squelch ugliness, calling for the ambulance in full public view is an option of last resort, typically reserved for horses in distress. Fragile from the start, a racehorse unable to walk back to the barn is a bad omen.

In any event, it is equally true that catching a ride with the paramedics is not a prerequisite for euthanasia. A recent case in point, courtesy of the sadly unique NYS database:

5-year-old Congaree King ran the 4th race at Finger Lakes last Tuesday, finishing 8th (out of 9). The chart notes were unremarkable: “broke sluggishly, lagged back four wide on the turn and tired.” That’s it. Now, he is dead. The database: “appeared lame after race-x-rays next day revealed Fx LF leg.” This is the 34th kill of the year at Finger Lakes.

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“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.

Unless otherwise noted, the following horses were “vanned off” American tracks this weekend.

Friday:
6-year-old Formulaforsuccess, Belmont, race 3
5-year-old Big Bentley, Calder, race 7
4-year-old Capable Native, Charles Town, race 1 (not vanned off but “bleeding from the nose”)
2-year-old Senora Sargento, Indiana Downs, race 5
2-year-old Coffee Dance, Indiana Downs, race 7
3-year-old Dash for Coronas, Lone Star, race 4
4-year-old Proulette (who was an eased DNF in start before this), Penn National, race 7
3-year-old Chiquita Mala, Penn National, race 9
2-year-old Da Belldozer, Remington, race 8
7-year-old She’s a Doll Two, Retama, race 9

Saturday:
7-year-old Monkeyinthemiddle, Delta Downs, race 1
2-year-old Go Go Boots, Hawthorne, race 2
6-year-old It’s My Turn, Keeneland, race 4 (bled and vanned off)
2-year-old Maroma Beach, Los Alamitos, race 4
6-year-old Reel Spinner, Mountaineer, race 4 (not vanned off but “bled,” DNF)
5-year-old Lord Vronsky, Santa Anita, race 4
5-year-old Dixieland Blues, Santa Anita, race 8
3-year-old Twilite Zone, Zia Park, race 3
5-year-old Night Victor, Zia Park, race 12

Sunday:
4-year-old Oklahoma Mule, Albuquerque, race 5 (not vanned off but “pulled up in distress,” DNF)
3-year-old Transplendid, Belmont, race 6
2-year-old Joe the Jet Perry, Los Alamitos, race 1
2-year-old Whos Up, Los Alamitos, race 9
2-year-old Platinum Gold (after winning), Portland Meadows, race 8
4-year-old Twitch (who was a pulled up DNF in start before this), Santa Anita, race 6

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Bloodhorse reports (10/17/13) that 6-year-old Take Control was euthanized at Santa Anita after, in the words of trainer Bob Baffert, “he took a bad step” while breezing. With only four career starts (and at least two surgeries), his death, I suppose, is newsworthy because of lineage (AP Indy, Azeri) and past value (“a $7.7 million RNA at the 2008 Keeneland September yearling sale”).

photo: Bloodhorse
photo credit: Bloodhorse

As this was a public passing (in contrast to the vast majority of racing kills), trainer Baffert was duty-bound to offer lament: “It’s really tough…he’s a nice horse, and he’s been with us a long time. It was a really sad day at the barn. It’s a part of the business that makes you not want to be in it, but things happen, and it’s just bad luck. One bad step and that’s what happens.” And the beat goes on…

Furosemide, or Lasix, is used, ostensibly, to control pulmonary bleeding in rapidly moving racehorses. But it is also a powerful diuretic that causes the horse to shed water weight (and helps flush the system) prior to the race. To the rest of the world (excepting Canada), U.S. horseracing is derelict in allowing raceday Lasix (in practically all starters). But according to American trainers, the rest of the world is wrong.

Prominent trainer Dale Romans starts with this premise (Paulick Report, 9/13/12): “Racing causes EXERCISE INDUCED pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH, respiratory bleeding) in 100% of horses.” So, for the good of the horse, it must be controlled. Enter Lasix, which, Roman says, decreases the incidence and severity of this “natural” condition and “has no harmful effects.” See, the drug is therapeutic, indeed humane. And, notes Romans, since all trainers have access to it, none are afforded a competitive advantage.

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Prohibiting Lasix, in Romans’ estimation, would lead to methods antithetical to equine welfare – like withholding water prior to a race: “It is my firm belief that one of the worst abuses that can be done to the racing horse is to ban Lasix.” Adds his colleague Rick Violette (DRF, 8/11/11), “Horses bleed. That is a fact. To force an animal to race without it is premeditated, borderline animal abuse.”

What Romans and Violette conveniently ignore, however, is that the level of natural bleeding that adversely affects the Thoroughbred, a 3 or 4 on a 1-4 scale, is rare and bleeding through the nostrils even rarer (perhaps 1%). So to say it’s more therapeutic than performance-enhancing is dubious.

But what if Romans is right about EIPH being innate (and painful) to the racing horse? If so, then the animal abuse that Violette speaks of is at racing’s very core: Horsemen are ever eager to proclaim racing as innocuous – horses are born to run, love to run; the ubiquitous whip is but a painless “guide.” But here, according to Romans et al., the fundamental act (racing) causes equine suffering (through bleeding). Is there another sport on the planet whose primary physical motion is inherently painful? Absurd.