Monday, May 5, 2008

What A Mess

On Saturday, as soon as we realized Eight Belles had died galloping out after the Derby, one of us turned off the TV, somebody else opened the fridge and picked out four nice carrots, and before we even realized what we were doing, we were out in the pasture pampering our horses with treats.

I could barely take my eyes off Trickster's fine, long cannon bones. In thoroughbred breeding, the muscles have gotten stronger as the skeletal system has gotten finer. Huge rubber bands rigged to fragile matchsticks. Half a ton of horseflesh supported on those bones the circumference of my forearm. If you let yourself think about it too deeply, standing up seems a miracle. Running on those legs should be downright impossible.

We hated everything about horse racing in those minutes and hours after she died. And in horse racing, there's a whole lot to hate.

But the reality is that the industry does exist. And wishing won't make it go away. Neither will turning away from it completely. Like economic sanctions that hurt the poorest the most, a boycott of thoroughbred racing would hit the horses first and foremost.

After Ruffian shattered her leg on the backstretch at Belmont Park in 1975, ten years of hard times for thoroughbred racing followed, as people understandably stayed away from the track. But little actually came of all that. Fans wandered back, and there were few real changes.

Being born into today's world is like stepping in chewing gum. The more you try to get clear of the mess, the worse it gets. No matter how hard we try, we all pollute. Most Americans pay taxes that help support our wars. Ethanol reduces fossil fuel dependence, but takes corn away from the world food supply. Horse racing can be terrible, but turning away from it is worse.

We all sat up Saturday night talking about whether to ever watch another race. We decided we will. We'll probably even watch Big Brown's Preakness and Belmont. But we're going to do something else, too. We're going to do what we can to put pressure on the industry to get rid of the whips, to ban the racing of 2-year-old babies, to convert all racing surfaces to safe synthetics, and to really penalize trainers caught drugging their horses.

Getting rid of whips is a no-brainer. The playing field remains level because none of the horses are getting hit.

Waiting until horses are 3 years old would be a huge change, but anybody who knows horses knows it's the right thing to do.

Statistics show a marked reduction in injuries over synthetic surfaces, so again, a no-brainer.

And drugging? Right now, a trainer who gets caught drugging a horse is merely suspended from the racetrack. All that means is that he or she can't physically enter the gate. His or her racing organization rolls along, with the trainer orchestrating everything by phone and Internet.

Starr Ann and I have turned our backs on the track a few times now. But we always come back. This time will be different. We're staying right in their faces, demanding sensible reforms until they have to listen, and supporting organizations that are making headway.

As for the beautiful filly herself, we console ourselves with knowing her body was hot, pumped, and full of adrenaline when she went down. Shock, perhaps Nature's kindest process, took over quickly. Confusion was probably Eight Belles' strongest sensation for those few seconds before the needle went in. If she'd gone down on a casual trail ride, as horses sometimes do, she wouldn't have had the benefit of swift euthanasia. So for that part, we can be thankful.

Starr Ann had a dream Saturday night. It was a pretty one. Two fillies, one jet black and one a very dark gray, running wild and free on sound legs without riders. That's all the dream was. Just Ruffian and Eight Belles tearing through an unfenced pasture.