I was fired up and ready to update the blog after watching BIG BROWN crush his opposition in last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Even had the title in mind: “Horse of a Different Color”. I’m not sure what it means but it sounded catchy. My point being that Big Brown stands out from this crop, and he showed it from his very first start last summer. I wanted to gloat a little bit—you know that racetrack gloat where you can’t understand why what seemed so obvious to you wasn’t unanimously embraced by everyone you know. Of course Big Brown would win the Derby, I wrote in my last posting. He’s the fastest, most talented horse in the group. And isn’t that who usually wins a horse race?

But the tragic breakdown of the filly EIGHT BELLES, who ran a sensational race in finishing second, and the subsequent firestorm from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) changed everything. Instead of celebrating the incredible performance by ‘Brown, winning the Derby in only his fourth start—and from the 20 post to boot—racing had once again been dealt the unfortunate hand of a fatal breakdown on a showcase day. Two years ago it was BARBARO in the Preakness, last fall GEORGE WASHINGTON in the BC Classic. It seems almost like there can’t be a nationally televised race without one of the participants getting catastrophically injured, once again showing the casual fan the worst part of our sport. And in the case of Eight Belles, the injury occured at the most unlikely time and place, as she galloped out at half-speed two furlongs after crossing the wire.

My first thought was “not again, not on national TV”. I knew there would be backlash but I wasn’t prepared for what we saw and heard this week. PETA, an organization that holds no credibility with me (not after their 2003 campaign called “The Holocaust on Your Plate”, which compared the killing of chickens for human consumption to the Nazi Holocaust), went on full-force attack. Initial statements such as, “[Eight Belles] was doubtlessly injured before the finish”, and calling for the suspension of jockey Gabriel Saez, who they claimed “beat” the filly with his whip despite knowing that she was injured. Even going so far as to upbraid Hillary Clinton for putting a symbolic $2 bet on a filly running against the boys.

Spokeswoman Lisa Lange, on Neil Cavuto’s Fox TV show made outlandish statement after outlandish statment. She wanted the 20-year-old jockey suspended and purse money revoked; abolish the use of the whip; not allow horses to start training, let alone racing before the age of 3-years-old (despite veterinary opinion to the contrary that says horses need to start training earlier in order to form good bone mass); and finally, the jockey, trainer, owner and anyone who bet on the horse “has a role in that horse’s painful death.” When pressed by Cavuto about the logic of trying to taint the young rider’s career because of the unfortunate injury and death of the filly, Lange replied “I don’t care about that jockey’s future, no.”

There undoubtedly are many facets of the horseracing game that animal rights activists could appropriately question. In order to satisfy the commercial marketplace, are we breeding animals that are too fragile? Why don’t horses stand training and racing the way their counterparts did 30 years ago? Has legal or illegal medication contributed to weakening the breed? Is the whip overused by jockeys, either out of their competitive fire to win or frustration? All good questions that could be talked about in a rational dialogue, not the hysterical and unsubstantiated claims of PETA.

The truth of the matter is that 95% of active racehorses are extremely well taken care of. The best diet, the best veterinary care, the best exercise regimen, the best teeth and hoof care. Thoroughbreds are bred to run and compete, not be farm animals. That’s what they do, and most love their “jobs”. Anyone who saw the ESPN piece on trainer Larry Jones and Eight Belles saw the camaraderie between man and horse, and the love he had for his star pupil. Jones, by the way, is not only an outstanding trainer but a stand-up man’s man. He met the media, with tears in his eyes, and answered every question thrown his way.

Unfortunately, injury is always part of the equation because these are fragile animals moving at a high rate of speed. But, ironically, the Derby has been an incredibly safe race, especially given the usual large field size. According to an excellent article by Ray Kerrison in the NY Post (click here for article), Eight Belles is the first fatality in 134 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. I caught Andy Beyer on NPR radio the other day and he believed she was the first fatality since 1932. Whichever is correct, the point is that the Derby has been a safe race.

Yet PETA, an organization that, according to Newsweek, euthanizes 85% of the animals it “rescues”, saw fit to throw out reckless and uninformed statements. It’s co-founder and president, Ingrid Newkirk, said, “If we suddenly make [horse racing] kind of tainted, it will not really be the place to be seen. We want other politicians, other people not to wish to be associated with it.” To me, that sounds more like a political agenda than concern for animals.

I’ll give the final word to trainer Jones, appearing on Cavuto’s show in order to refute PETA’s claims: “They [PETA] don’t love animals, they hate people.”

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One Response to “PETA Mudslinging Overshadows Derby”

  1. ferg on May 11th, 2008 2:26 am

    [In my best Gabby Johnson voice] Reverend!

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