EIGHT BELLES was euthanized two weeks ago following her second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, sparking a debate about whether breeding horses for speed makes them more susceptible to injury. Image: Jim Wood
Tomorrow, the eyes of the horse racing world will turn to the 133rd annual Preakness Stakes, the middle jewel of U.S. horse racing's Triple Crown.
But the dust has barely settled from the tragedy at the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, where vets were forced to euthanize the promising gray thoroughbred filly, Eight Belles, when she collapsed on the track after completing the race at Churchill Downs, suffering from two shattered ankles in her front legs.
The death sent a chill through the world of thoroughbred racing, which just over a year ago lost beloved Barbaro from complications of surgery to repair a massively fractured leg suffered at the Preakness eight months before. Critics immediately condemned the racehorse industry's emphasis on breeding for speed and quick maturation, alleging that it compromised the overall health of the horses.
Thoroughbred racing "is in a moral crisis, and everyone now knows it," sportswriter Sally Jenkins wrote in The Washington Post.
Veterinary experts are not dismissing the notion that modern horses might pay a genetic toll for their precocity. "Those of us who have seen how the breed has changed do believe that's possible," says Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. But hard evidence remains scarce.
In Eight Belles's case, an autopsy released yesterday by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority found no preexisting bone disease or injuries that might have contributed to the injury, making it hard to pin the accident on any one cause. The horse's owner has requested additional tests to prove that she had not been given steroids.
Even as they look for hints of declining vigor among racehorses, vets and racing officials have taken steps they hope will reduce the chances of fatal accidents. Preliminary evidence from 34 tracks, collected since last June as part of the on-track injury reporting system, suggests that switching from dirt tracks to a synthetic blend of wax-coated silica sand, fibers, and rubber particles may improve horse safety.
Mary Scollay, an associate veterinarian at Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino and at Calder Race Course, both in south Florida, who coordinates the on-track project, reported at the March 17 Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit that dirt tracks such as Churchill Downs had seen 2.03 fatal injuries per 1,000 starts compared with 1.47 per 1,000 on synthetic tracks. Scollay cautions that the number reflects less than a year's worth of data so it should not be taken as definitive.
The belief that horses face hidden health risks comes from changes in breeding incentives since the 1960s and 1970s, Arthur says, when rich owners bred and raced their own contenders. Horse breeding is now big business, with top thoroughbreds easily commanding six-figures per mating. To recoup their investments, buyers want horses that will mature rapidly and win often.
Anecdotally, trainers believe that selection for speed and youthful vigor has made horses unable to race as frequently as in the past, says Ed Bowen, president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation in Lexington, Ky., the cradle of U.S. horse breeding.