The Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in U.S. thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown, is May 17 in Baltimore, Maryland. But instead of speculation on how Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown will fare on his way to a possible Triple Crown victory, the spotlight is on equine safety and the ethics of horse racing following the death of Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles. As VOA's Teresa Sullivan reports, the incident has rekindled debate between animal rights groups and the horse racing industry.
The euthanization on the track of two-year-old filly Eight Belles is the second high-profile death of a top thoroughbred in as many years. Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro was euthanized by lethal injection in January 2007, eight months after breaking one of his hind legs at the Preakness Stakes in 2006.
In Eight Belles' case, she shattered both of her front ankles just moments after crossing the finish line in second place at the Kentucky Derby, the first race of the Triple Crown, which also includes the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in New York. Veterinary surgeon, Dr. Larry Bramlage, was forced to euthanize the filly by lethal injection on the dirt track of Churchill Downs when nothing could be done to save her.
As Eight Belles lay dying where she fell, Derby winner, Big Brown, was standing in the winners circle draped in a blanket of hundreds of roses surrounded by a jubilant owner, trainer and jockey. For many, the paradox of triumph and glory for one horse occurring against the suffering and tragic death of another encompasses the best and worst aspects of horse racing.
The animal protection group known as PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is calling horse racing "cruelty masquerading as sport." PETA Assistant Director Kristie Phelps told VOA that, short of an all-out ban, horse racing should be overhauled.
"A ban on whipping. We're asking that the number of races a horse can run per season be limited to seven. We are also asking that horses under the age of three be prohibited from training and racing because their bones and joints are not fully developed yet. And finally, we are asking that hard dirt tracks be replaced with synthetic surfaces or grass turf that have been proven to reduce injuries to horses in places where they have been instituted."
PETA says many lesser-known race horses suffer severe injuries similar to those that ended the lives of Barbaro and Eight Belles, but their fates do not make news headlines. The U.S.-based group says most race horses end up broken down, cast off, or sent sent to slaughterhouses in Europe.
Meanwhile, the 114-year-old Jockey Club responded to the death of Eight Belles by forming a new committee tasked with studying race horse welfare and safety, including breeding practices, medication, racing rules, and track surfaces.
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) praised the Jockey Club's action. In an on-line diary, NTRA President Alex Waldrop said the horse racing industry must take drastic action to reverse what he called a "very disturbing trend" toward open criticism of horse racing for its perceived cruelty to animals.
Waldrop told VOA Sports it is a concern. "The thoroughbred industry's number one priority is the health and safety of the horse. The people in this industry care deeply about our horses. And we take very seriously our responsibility to provide a safe environment for horses in training, and in competition," he said.
Waldrop called the death of Eight Belles a tragic, freak accident and emphasized that the thoroughbred industry must do all it can to ensure the health and safety of its horses, because without them, it would have no business.
The NTRA president says he expects the seven-member Jockey Club committee to make specific recommendations on a number of ongoing initiatives that can be made industry-wide as soon as possible. "In our minds, the status quo is not an option, and we need to bring a renewed sense of urgency to all these initiatives because the fans and industry stake holders expect nothing less," he said.
Waldrop says PETA's recommendations for using synthetic tracks and banning whipping are worth considering. He says the industry, through the Jockey Club committee, needs to examine these and other issues.
The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and the Belmont Stakes are all run on dirt tracks. Big Brown's trainer Rick Dutrow says proper maintenance and upkeep - not synthetic surfaces - are the key to better track safety. "The most important thing is the track condition. I mean, more than anything else in this game is good track superintendents. If they had good track superintendents in all these areas, they would not have to go to these synthetic tracks. They would have guys that really know what they are doing and have it safe for the horses," he said.
So the controversy continues. But the one thing on which both sides of the debate agree is that more needs to be done to improve the safety and welfare of the horses that run for the pleasure and profits of humans.