Thoroughbred horse racing may be sowing the seeds of its own demise. The filly Eight Belles became the latest horse to die from a race-related injury in the Triple Crown series. The problem was dragged into the spotlight two years ago when Barbaro--who had won the first two legs of the series, broke a back leg at the start of the Belmont Stakes. Much was made of the efforts to save the leg--but the horse just wouldn't heal--and had to be destroyed a few months later.
Those involved in the sport say injuries like those suffered by Eight Belles and Barbaro are freak occurances. But if casual racing fans who tune in to just three races a year see a horse die every time, are they going to believe its a rarity? Or will they begin to believe the animal rights extremists who claim the sport is inhumane? I'm one of those casual fans and I still remember one of the first years of the Breeders Cup when three horses had to be put down on the same day.
Americans love horses and they don't want to see them suffer just for sport and gambling. That's the other unsavory element here. How many people would have been at Churchill downs on Saturday if you couldn't bet on the race? For that matter, how many people would show up at any of the horse racing tracks in America if there was no betting?
Experts blame the racing injuries on poor breeding practices. The horse leg is a marvel of evolution--supporting a heavy body on relatively thin bones. As human intervention in the breeding and evolution process continues, those delicate bones, tendons and muscles are becoming less able to withstand the pressure put on them by the rigors of racing. People wonder why there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner in more than 30-years? It's because the animals just can't handle the strain anymore.
One solution would be to install rubberized surfaces on the Triple Crown tracks--and all tracks for that matter. For some of the horses in Saturday's Derby, it was the first time they had run on something other than rubber. Owners and trainers could help by spreading out the horses' race schedules and scaling back distances. NASCAR put on restrictor plates to slow down cars and make their sports safer. Maybe horse racing should consider the same thing to save their sport.