Eight Belles: Tragic Lesson

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

I've often wondered if the thoroughbred left to Nature, left to run like the wind across the hills of Big Sky Montana with wild Mustang cousins, is as fragile as the thoroughbreds lined up at the nation's starting gates. It's an absurd question in that thoroughbreds don't run wild in Nature. They are genetically-engineered marvels, bred for two centuries for speed….and for our wagering pleasure. These magnificent equine specimens have been inbred to the point that all twenty horses competing in Saturday's Kentucky Derby came through the same blood lines. Inbred to the point that their body mass is half a ton of pure power, their spindly legs carrying that mass more and more susceptible to bone fractures and ripped tendons through the years. You might compare the equine-breeding nightmare to the canine scenario. If you've ever owned a Labrador retriever, you've no doubt dealt with his hip dysplasia. In breeding for cute faces, huge paws, beautiful black, yellow and chocolate coats, the loveable lab has also been genetically burdened with chronic weakness in the hips. A pure-bred Lab as a general rule starts life with heightened risk for hip dislocation, and often a shortened life.

Well, the genetic burden of the inbred thoroughbred is weak lower-leg bones. What's so terribly ironic about that is that the horse doesn't seem to run a whisper faster over the past hundred years. The winning time at the 1931 Kentucky Derby was 2:01 and 4/5 seconds. This year's winner, Big Brown, clocked in at 2:01.82 which is the modern way of saying 2:01 and 4/5 seconds. So we've produced these tragically fragile animals for speed but they don't run any faster? And you can pile on the irony here because the millions of fans who bet on these horses every year don't care at all about their absolute speed. It's not the same as following a human track runner and thrilling to witness him break the world record. With horses, it's only relative speed that matters. We only care if a horse can beat another, not what his time is around the oval. Trainers time horses to measure how they're going to stack up against the field, but you don't hear trainers bragging about a horse's time in a race. If Big Brown had won the Derby in 2:10, the Run for the Roses would have been just as sweet.

So why not completely revamp the breeding process of the sport? Why not create a central breeding authority that will control mating and slowly undo the inbreeding nightmare that has created this super-fragile animal?

As has happened in the past, animal rights activists charge onto the scene when a high-profile horse breaks down at a high-profile event. Nobody is callous enough to say they weren't disturbed plenty to watch the beautiful Eight Belles struggle on the track on Saturday. To watch her lose her life just minutes after running the race of her life was devastating for her owners, her trainer and her jockey. Grown men cried real tears. So it's not that racing insiders casually accept euthanasia as part and parcel of their sport and it's us outsiders who are too darn sensitive. But when the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals rush to the scene with demands that the sport be wiped out, or at the least be radically reformed, I just want to know where they are with their outrage the rest of the year. There are some ninety race tracks in the US today and some 700 to 800 horses are put down due to broken legs from racing each year. For every thousand horses that bolt down the final straightaway and thrill the grandstand crowd, two break down and are put down within 24 hours. PETA is front-and-center at the Kentucky Derby but where are they when horses race in West Virginia and Florida and Pennsylvania? There is no overnight solution to the thoroughbred dilemma. It took centuries to make the race horse so fragile. It's going to take a long time to undo that damage.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Kent Desormeaux (2nd L), riding #20 Big Brown, breaks away to take the lead into the final stretch against Gabriel Saez (L), riding #5 Eight Belles, E.T. Baird (2nd R), riding #18 Recapturetheglory and John Velazquez (R), riding #17 Cowboy Cal durinng the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 3, 2008 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images



Diana Nyad