Not again.

Another Kentucky Derby, another breakdown. Churchill Downs officials did what frequently happens when a horse is injured this badly in front of a worldwide television audience — drew trucks in a tight circle around her and euthanized her out of sight. Not that NBC seemed inclined to show it in the first place, as Sally Jenkins notes.

I love horses, I love (most) horsemen, but people? When the most famous horse race in the world features two hideous life-ending accidents in three years, the world is telling you something, and it’s not, “You’re having a run of bad luck.”

Some years ago the Atlantic ran a fascinating story about the American Kennel Club, and how it’s ruining dogs. You may disagree with its basic premise, but it raised some fascinating questions about what, exactly, constitutes a breed. The example they used was Dalmatians, which have a chronic, genetic stomach defect. It’s on a recessive gene, and breeders have found that if you breed a Dalmatian out to an English spaniel (maybe a setter; memory’s not what it used to be), which looks like a long-haired version of a Dalmatian, the defect disappears. Breed those pups back to Dalmatians, and within two or three generations you have puppies that look and behave exactly like any other Dalmatian, but are free of the genetic defect. Alas, the AKC considers these dogs mongrels. Why? Because they’re not purebred.

Thoroughbreds (which is an actual breed, not a designation like “purebred”) are among the most inbred horses in the world. Every single one goes back to three foundation sires, and nearly all the ones racing today can call Native Dancer some form of great-great grandpappy. Students of racing have noted the bloodline seems to be at a plateau — records haven’t moved much since Secretariat’s day 35 years ago, and that was before a lot of technical and pharmaceutical advances Secretariat’s team couldn’t take advantage of. Big Brown, the winner yesterday, has a history of hoof bruising, and runs in glue-on shoes over silicone pads. Think what you’d rather run a bruising mile-and-a-quarter in — wingtips or Nikes. That’s the comparison.

No one has written better about racing in recent years than Jane Smiley, novelist and horsewoman, who has campaigned several racehorses and rides herself. Her post on the NYT blog yesterday was instructive; she thinks the problem is in footing, not breeding, and notes the sharp drop in catastrophic accidents in California, once that state gave up dirt for a synthetic surface called polytrack. Europe has far few injuries than the U.S. does as well, and runs on grass. Jenkins puts the blame on inbreeding and overtraining. They’re both probably at least partly right; it’s a complicated problem without easy answers. Just for the hell of it, though, I’d like to see some discussion of breeding a little more sturdiness into the line. The breed’s been around for 300 years or so — can we add one more ingredient to the stew? Maybe a dash of Dutch Warmblood, something with a bit more iron in the leg. Partisans will tell you a horse so bred wouldn’t be a thoroughbred, and if you’re going to split hairs, I guess it wouldn’t be. But then, maybe the next discussion might be to open up racing to non-thoroughbreds. Why not? If thoroughbreds are superior, they’ll win all the races, and maybe the ones bred for a little extra bone heft will retain their speed and lose the glass ankles. This is a speed competition, not a dog show.

Otherwise, if this happens again in another year or two or three, well — it’s going to be a major mellow-harsher. Whenever it does, there’s a lot of mournful talk about how much these horses “love” their job, and how they wouldn’t be happy if they couldn’t race, etc. It’s anthropomorphic, of course; horses, all horses, do their jobs because it’s in their nature to cooperate, and do what’s asked of them. I never watched a 900-pound horse carry a 90-pound kid around a course of fences without marveling that he — the horse — allows it at all. They’re pleasers by nature, and we project our dreams of glory onto them, not the other way around. People watch the Kentucky Derby for the beauty of the animals, the loveliness of the spectacle, “My Old Kentucky Home.” They want the taste of bourbon in their mouths. Not blood.

OK, then.

Newcomer to the blogroll: Sweet Juniper, Detroiter, responsible for the infamous Detroit Public Schools book depository photos seen everywhere on the ‘nets these past few months. An urban life/parenting blogger with a gifted pen and an equally gifted eye. The graffiti pictures at Dequindre Cut are especially recommended. If you have a little time, read his explainer on how the books got that way.

A funny read from the WashPost, which asks the question, right there in the subhed: How much about your teenage transgressions should you tell your kids? The lede:

SOME MONTHS BACK, I was invited to a party with 20 or so other mothers. It was a wine-and-cheese affair, ladies only: The hostess had evacuated her husband and kids to the mall. Gathered around her dining room

table, we talked about our children, and then a few of the women began reminiscing about their own youths, comparing the transgressions they’d committed in their teens and 20s and debating whose were the most egregious.

“I win, I win!” one mother exclaimed. “I was a stripper!”

Can’t beat that, girls.

If you haven’t seen them yet, scroll down for Brian Stouder’s pix of Barack Obama’s visit to the Fort yesterday. Of course I missed it. It’s my curse.

However, a lovely day is in progress right outside. Time to go exploring with the Flip.

Posted at 8:22 am in Uncategorized |

25 responses to “Not again.”

  1. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on May 5, 2008 at 9:31 am

    Juniper’s “explainer” is a fine piece of journalism, with more content than most of what i read over the weekend, so click and learn, folks — caused me to hunt up the Forbes article, which looks fascinating but i won’t get to read ’til later, but for y’all —

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  2. nancy said on May 5, 2008 at 9:58 am

    I think of the Troll Under the Bridge as the clearest argument for curbing capitalism for the public interest. Republicans are always blah-blahing about how inefficient government is by definition, etc., and yet you can hardly find a clearer example of how the invisible hand of the marketplace sometimes gets it far, far wrong — further than any port authority would, anyway. When people learn that the most important border crossing in the northern U.S. is privately owned by a single greedy billionaire, with all that such an arrangement implies, their jaws drop. As well they should.

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  3. Terry WAlter said on May 5, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    Well Nancy, do you ever read the ag business column in the N-S by Alan Guebert? Most would describe his column as left leaning. However, his arguments are heavily laced with facts, unlike most liberal politically correct ‘thought’. He often describes the big ag business machinations in creating monopolies. These are most effectively created how? By getting government approval for them. He blasts the Bush administration on this,rightly so I believe. However if you think the Dems are the answer,ponder this. One of these bloating monopolists is Tyson Foods. Anyone recall where they are headquartered? Can anyone think of a “miracle’ commodity trader? The oil companies are everybodys’ favorite whipping boy these days. But consider all they have to do to get a gallon of gas to the pump. Go to the ends of the earth to drill, transport it, refine it; all the while fighting for the right just to do it. Do I believe they are somewhat taking advantage of the situation? Yes, but to a degree it is their job. Meanwhile, the food companies are getting a pass. They use the ethanol/corn use argument for the huge increases in price we see at the grocery. But if you stop to figure up how many boxes of cereal or tacos they can make out of a bushel of wheat or corn, the raw materials scenario doesn’t begin to explain it.
    Anyway, the most effective monopolies are those created by or in conjunction with the government. After all, ‘it’s the law’. Kinda like Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex, only expanded out.

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  4. Dexter said on May 5, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    I have watched the Derby for 47 years and this was the most sickening one of the forty seven.
    The re-habbed trainer of Big Brown babbling and crying in joy at his win, then long range cameras showing two equine ambulances … any casual follower of racing ( and I only pay attention in May and June) had that sick feeling…horse down…well, I just knew Eight Belles was doomed.
    I do not understand racing and therefore can’t criticize anyone, I just do not understand how a great horse gallops past the pole at full stride and doesn’t collapse until a quarter mile later…PETA says the horse was injured before the finish, and I have watched the replay ten times searching … I can’t see that. It was reported on RFD TV today that Eight Belles had bones sticking out as she was euthanized…are they saying the bones cracked apart at pull-up? If you watch Big Brown walking towards the Winner’s Circle you notice him being spooked and shaking the jockey off. That was when Eight Belles collapsed. The horrible screams of pain freaked Big Brown out.
    I think Big Brown will win the Triple Crown unless his hooves hurt too bad. But although I will watch the Preakness and Belmont, I’ll just be nervous, and hoping no more poor horses go down to a horrible death.

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  5. nancy said on May 5, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Those sorts of compound fractures are very common when a horse shatters a bone like that. The skin is thin, the force is overwhelming, and… ugh.

    PETA is full of shit. Whipping in the stretch isn’t cruel by any measure, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a mark on a horse after a stretch run. Normally a rider uses his legs to communicate with the horse, but when you’re in bug position like a jockey, you don’t have any leg to use. A whack says “move away from this stimulus” as well as “go faster.” In other words, it’s also used to get lateral movement, not just forward.

    Note the stirrup length in the War Admiral-Seabiscuit match race. Compare it to today. Interesting.

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  6. Catherine said on May 5, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    A bunch of the Santa Anita meet was cancelled this year due to the new polytrack. They couldn’t get it to drain right. Knowing next to nothing about horse racing, I wonder if it is perhaps a mixed blessing?

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  7. beb said on May 5, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    My sister was the horse person in our family. I had the “honor”of cleaning the barns. As you can imagine I’m not so much a horse person. Nonetheless, when the same accident happens twice in three years it’s time to reconsider the sport.

    Since they’ve used a dirt that in Kentuckey for 134 years without this many broken legs I don’t think the track is the issue. It’s the horses. Better tracks will mask the problem for a while but clearly the horse have become too fragile from too much inbreeding.

    Corn isn’t just for flakes. It’s the principle feed for cows, pigs and chickens. So when the price of corn goes up a whole raft of things become more expensive. And the price increase in corn is matched by the declines to corn reserves. People making ethanol have been buying a *LOT* of corn and clearly have been driving up corn prices.

    The quickest way to bring down the price of corn is to open the US market to foreign sugar. It’s a lot cheaper than what we can grow here. But who among politicans is goign to fight the sugar cartel? Just as no politician is going to fight Tyson foods. There’s too much campaign money involved. It’s not a Left-v-Right issue. It’s pure money/corruption.

    A point worth mentioning for your non-horsy readers is that horse rarely lay down, and never for the months that it would take for a broken leg to heal. They have to stand and a horse with two broken legs simply can not stand.

    And among dogs many of the larger breeds, or so I understand, have chronic hip displasia problem. Again too much in-breeding, too much trying to “refined” a look for a breed. I’m all for mutts.

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  8. sue said on May 5, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    It always surprises me that horse racing, dog racing and dog and horse breeding have so many educated people involved (veterinarians, trainers, breeders who actually study bloodlines), and no one gets the idea that they might be doing harm to the breed(s) they profess to love. “Peeing like a racehorse” is not just an expression. Those animals are bred and medicated ridiculously for optimum performance in a few races – apparently the big picture escapes these folks. European royalty spent several generations passing hemophilia and deformed jaws around Europe before anyone figured out what the problem was; Hitler took pure bloodlines just a little further than he should have; and yet we still love the idea of purity in breeding – we’re just transferring it to our animals. Idiots.

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  9. Jolene said on May 5, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Re the idea that horses must stand, does anyone have a good link to a description of the relationship between equine digestion and leg injuries. I read a really good description of how the inability to walk interferes w/ digestion when Barbaro was injured, but couldn’t find it quickly.

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  10. nancy said on May 5, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    Jolene, I can’t find anything on that subject either, but here’s my educated guess: Horses evolved to spend 20 hours a day grazing. That involves moving slowly across a patch of ground, ingesting a food that’s mostly fiber. Their digestive systems don’t do “meals” — they do munch, move, munch, move, munch. Probably the gentle movement of their bodies as they make their way across a pasture help to move the load along. (When a horse acts colicky, the first thing you do is put a stethoscope to their flank and listen for gurgles. No gurgles = bad sign. And the first thing you do by way of treatment is start them walking.

    (Now that I think about it, doesn’t mild exercise get everyone’s gut a-rumblin’? Toast, coffee, a dog walk and I’m ready to read the newspaper, so to speak.)

    Regular old shlubs like me never get to test the colic/immobility relationship because we never own horses expensive enough to lay up for long periods of time, at least not with leg injuries. I’ve dealt with lameness many times, but something that would require a cast or other exotic bandage? The vet bills would equal a college education, and even then, most of them go out like Barbaro.

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  11. JenFlex said on May 5, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    Re: why did she break down post-race.

    The same reason your car’s front brakes wear out before the rear, and you wear seatbelts to keep from hitting the dashboard. Acceleration comes from behind; deceleration hits the front end. Standing still, more than 55% of a horse’s weight lands on its front legs. Figure that she was decelerating from 40 mph, and that’s a lot of weight for those front legs to bear. Plus, like Smiley said, she was exhausted, and one wrong step = catastrophic event.

    I think the PETA accusations are cr@p. The inbreeding is probably true, and it’s absolutely true that competition results trump common sense in many activities. Unfortunately, when those activities involve animals, it becomes all too easy to see who’s paying the price. E.g., rollkur/dressage; colic rates/show jumpers (NSAIDs given for foot/leg pain impact the horse’s gut, and so does stress); English Bulldogs who can’t breathe; and so many more.

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  12. basset said on May 5, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    Nance, how is “Dequindre” pronounced? just curious.

    right over the hill from me, maybe two miles away, is a steeplechase course that’s supposed to be some kind of big deal in that world – their major race of the year is next weekend.

    Princess Anne was here a few years back and said she would not return because the ground was too hard. she brought a sizable security detail with her too, many of them SAS men who lurked around in the woods just in case some Irish nationalist decided to creep up and take a shot at her.

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  13. nancy said on May 5, 2008 at 10:34 pm


    Princess Anne was the only Olympic athlete who, in 1972 or whenever it was that she was on the UK’s equestrian team, did not have to take the genetic test to prove she was born a woman. Fun fact to know and tell.

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  14. moe99 said on May 6, 2008 at 12:00 am

    Here’s my theory on digestion vs. keeping the weight off horses’ broken legs: You’re going to have to strap the horse up off the ground to make sure no weight is put on the broken leg. And to do that you probably have to have all four legs off the ground. What that means is a big strap under the belly of the horse and all the weight pressing down on that strap means that there are organs being squashed and I’ll be the organ getting squashed the most are the stomach and intestines. I can ask my sister, the veterinarian, for confirmation.

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  15. caliban said on May 6, 2008 at 2:51 am

    Is it a tragedy when a thouroughbred dies? I‘m a confirmed Teillhardian, so yeah, I think it is.. There‘s something extremely perverse in mankind‘s breeding skinny legs into horses so they can run very fast. If you‘re going to screw with genetics, and you claim to love horses, wouldn’t you try to make them stronger so things like this wouldn’t happen? This is a stark, conflicted and painful commentary.

    The Janjaweed ride horses. They don‘t break down in the backstretch.. Ethnic cleansing? Perversion of language. Like breeding thoroughbreds. They don’t call it Messenger DNA for nothing. Given the unholy blessing of drone bombers, couldn’t W just blow these assholes up? But they’re in his side of the gene pool where oil is concerned.

    Recent efforts to sock in the government in Iraq are fascinating. Get your ass humiliated and leave the briar patch for the next guy. That is what HW did with Somalia. Bailed out.

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  16. caliban said on May 6, 2008 at 2:54 am

    Princess Anne is a gender unto herself.

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  17. Terry WAlter said on May 6, 2008 at 6:07 am

    Lasix is the drug that causes racehorses to pee. Also used in humans.

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  18. John said on May 6, 2008 at 7:37 am

    Did I miss your note to check out the Washington Post yesterday for a guest column on Indiana?

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  19. Sue said on May 6, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Lasix is used in humans to control edema, usually in the course of treatment for a medical condition. I believe it’s used in racehorses on race day to control bleeding, although I don’t know why. Either way it’s a diuretic. Imagine having to do some monstrous physical activity while balancing on the edge of dehydration. Seems wrong.

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  20. nancy said on May 6, 2008 at 8:46 am

    Lasix is used to control pulmonary bleeding, which can happen in extreme exertion. (Everything you always wanted to know about lasix here.) It’s not given to induce peeing; when a horse is worked, either in training or racing, he’s always given a long cooling-out period and grooming routine — bathing, walking, sipping water, maybe some liniment and stretching — and then put back in the stall. The stall is a cue to “relax, work’s over,” and many horses celebrate with a nice long pee. Some claim you can train a horse to pee as a conditioned response by whistling in their ears, and lots of trainers do. The guy or girl who collects the sample has a jar on the end of a long pole, and enters the stall when the horse is put away. Pat pat on the neck, whistle in the ear and pretty soon they stretch out and produce.

    You can’t just walk up to a horse, whistle in their ear and watch them pee. All the other factors have to be right, too.

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  21. brian stouder said on May 6, 2008 at 8:53 am

    John – thanks for the link!! A very good Washington Post opinion piece, by the proprietress her-own-self!

    (If that was in the News-Sentinel, it would generate upset letters to the editor for the next month!)

    edit – my lovely wife and I voted this morning (at different times); no lengthy lines of voters were present – although one could say it was ‘steady’ (I had two people ahead of me, and one after me, and another voter [presumeably] was pulling in as I drove away)…..and no dramatic challenge to me when I went for “D” status for the first time in a primary. (I had an Obama button tucked inside my pocket, as a ready talisman in case I was challenged).

    Real life Hoosier voting was (as always) much more relaxed than the cable channels might have us believe…at least hereabouts

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  22. Sue said on May 6, 2008 at 8:58 am

    Bleeding in the lungs? That sounds awful. Why would anyone allow doing that to a horse? I thought it was just little bleeding, bruising or something. Really, I want to know. Nancy?

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  23. nancy said on May 6, 2008 at 9:07 am

    It’s not that bad. Follow the lasix link above, and all is explained.

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  24. Sue said on May 6, 2008 at 9:36 am

    Sounds bad enough to me, given the description of what happens in all-out running. But the article also uses the term “equine athlete” (no anthropomorphic attributes there), so I guess if you think of it in terms of what human athletes do to gain optimum performance, it lines up as it should. I don’t have to like it, though. Nobody’s going to make any money raising horses to frolic in fields all day.

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  25. Joan said on May 7, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    I’m new to your blog (now a favorite), invited to it by a mutal friend I’ll just call “BILL”.

    I’m a horsewoman in the least possible sense of the word. I’ve worked with and trained rescue horses for the past 8 years, have only attended horse shows-never participated. I guess knowing what needs to be accomplished with a horse and to a horse to achieve any kind of success at any level of competition, not to mention how many of the competitors treat their horse, I decided backyard riding is for me. However I have learned a lot about horse behavior over the years and your assesment of the horse is spot on. As for the Derby, I agree that the culprit in the destruction of the legs of these horses is all of the above mentioned factors plus the fact that the horses are way too young. Their knees haven’t even fused together yet at the age of 2 or 3. While horses can be worked with at any age, it really isn’t the best for the horse to be worked at the pace and speed that racing requires at such young ages. In short, it is the fault of humans that these beautiful animals are injured. Yes, they love to run-but given a choice I doubt very much that any horse would run 4-5 times a week at full speed for over a mile just for snicks.

    On a different subject, I saw RFK too-I believe I was 9 or 10 at the time. Fourty years later Indiana still counted for a day. I love it!

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