Thursday, February 01, 2007

Why I wouldn't want to be a race horse

Look at the life of a thoroughbred race horse. I mean, look at it.

Earthly kings wish they were this destined for greatness upon birth. Even before birth.

Your mother and father are handpicked for their genetic superiority. From the get-go, you already know that you are going to be bigger, stronger and faster than ol' Trigger out on the range. Your coat is going to be shiny and lush. The hitch in your gait is going to be tap-dance perfect.

People will be awed just by looking at how physically perfect you are.

From very early in your life, your every need will be attended to. Once you leave your equine mother, an army of human mothers and fathers will brush you, bathe you, feed you and speak snoogy-boogy baby language to you while they scrape the dirt off your hoofs.

And while humans generally have to wait decades to fulfill their potential, you can become a legend in less time than it will take for the Olympic torch to travel from Athens to Beijing.

By year three, you have matured into a breathtaking specimen. You are eligible to compete in the three most prestigious races in the world: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

In the span of one race you can go from handsome nobody to beloved somebody. In the span of three races, you can go from beloved somebody to cherished legend.

Just win 'em all, and nobody will forget you. Ever.

Then, it's off to stud, where your sole job for the rest of your life will be to sire offspring. Eat, sleep, sex. Until you die.

What's not to love?

Well, nothing. Until something goes horribly wrong, that is.

The sad case of Barbaro sheds some light on the bottom line-driven underbelly of the horse racing industry. The reigning Kentucky Derby champion didn't live to see this year's race. He was euthanized earlier this week after a long battle attempting to recover from a gruesome leg injury suffered just out of the gates in last year's Preakness.

The real tragedy is not when he died or even that he died. The real tragedy is why he died.

At the end, Barbaro might have been put down in order to stop his suffering. The added weight on his non-injured limbs caused laminitis, a condition that causes deterioration of the hoof. Eventually, all four limbs were affected.

But laminitis didn't kill Barbaro. In an age where human prosthesis limbs can contain robotic parts, I find it hard to believe that the armada of doctors and scientists available to try and save the life of a Kentucky Derby champion couldn't have produced something to make Barbaro's limbs serviceable enough to at least live on.

The truth is, Barbaro died because he couldn't earn his keep.

When a horse is retired to stud, he basically becomes nothing more than reproductive organs with a body attached. Sure, they still brush him and feed him and speak baby talk to him, but if he can't naturally mount a mare, sire a foal and pass on his genes to a new generation of potential Triple Crown thoroughbreds, his value is virtually nil.

With two bad hind legs, Barbaro's siring ability was ruined. It sounds cold and heartless, but to the people who pay millions to breed and train these horses, it's not worth it to pay the money to feed, outfit and look after a horse if he's going to do nothing for it.

And so, a magnificent beast met an untimely end.

The decision to end Barbaro's life might have been a humane one, but that was only a positive byproduct of the real reason.

Money killed Barbaro. More specifically, the money he wasn't going to be able to make his handlers in thoroughbred offspring.

Sire or die. If there is a more compelling reason to not want to be a race horse, I haven't found it yet.


Marc said...

I was listening to a local sports talk show when that happened and they were speaking to people that breed horses. Apparantely they don't breed them by natural means. They basically just allow the horse to do his business into a giant test tube type thing as often as he can. Then they artificially inseminate the female horse. There's a much higher success rate that way. So, Barbaro didn't even need the ability to mount a horse anymore.

Anonymous said...

You may be "an award winning" journalist, but you are also one of the biggest a-holes I have seen in your knowledge of the thoroughbred industry. This horse (Barbaro) was NOT put down due to economics as you would so easily believe. Should that be the case, his owners never would have spent the tens of thousands of dollars to care for him- insurance does NOT cover injuries sustained on the track. This was an act of love, not greed. The benefit to the industry liues in the research obtained studying his injuries; the loss, a tragedy for the sport. BTW, a racing thoroughbred CANNOT be conceived by artificial insemination. Learn before you open your mouth.
I hope that you come back in your next life as a race horse.