Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Kentucky Derby and Eight Belles




Thirty- five years ago, I worked as a groom, hot-walker, and exercised the horses and broke thoroughbred yearling race horses in the state of Kentucky. My aunt ran the kitchen at Churchill Downs and I waited tables on Millionaires Row on Derby and when she needed extra help.


You name it. I did it at Churchill Downs and also worked at the Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington, Kentucky during the sales when we would take broodmares for the auctions. Believe me. It's a great deal of hard work for low pay, but I loved it. The smell of the track, the morning smells when the fog is lifting and you can see the horses in the fields start their morning romps. The smell of fresh hay and the warmth of the magnificent animals as you lean against them.


From my own observations and knowledge of horses, at the time I began to feel that the horses were being trained at an age when they should not have had such rigorous training with a person aboard. A yearling is trained to walk on a lead, wear a saddle pad and generally be handled once it's taken away from it's mother. At two years old a thoroughbred should NOT be in fast training with a rider. Their legs are still growing and a rider is too heavy for a fast gallop on a daily basis. Now, after this tragedy, I am hearing from other horse breeders and owners that the horses should not even have heavy training with a rider at three years of age.


However, because the sport does not make the money football and other sports enjoy, the horses are put through rigorous training a year before they should be ridden at that pace. Mostly the people who are on the horses as they are trained weigh more than jockeys do.


The death of the filly Eight Belles and the death of previous Derby horses was not as common in years when I was growing up and then working at the tracks.


However, the in-breeding and over-breeding has made the magnificent breed subject to thin leg bones. In the beginning, 134 years ago, the horses were built very differently. If you like horse racing, read up on the history of it.


Today, many trotters (commonly called "tail-sitters by the jockey set) and thoroughbreds and all breeds are commonly sold after they are not "successful" to private persons for pleasure riders. Many of these horses are too damaged for their sport anymore, but are okay for trails and general riding. The Amish buy many racing trotters after they are deemed too slow for the track.


Personally, the conclusion I have now come to is that the horrors of what happens to grey hounds in that industry is not much different from that of the horse racing industry. The geldings suffer the most. At least the mares can be bred. But just as there are too many dogs and cats in shelters, the amount of horses in this country are going through the same problem, with not enough homes for them.


However, racing is a money sport. You won't find the rules being changed by the greed of the commission....and expect in every Derby to come, there will be a tragedy like that of the wonderful filly, Eight Belles, who ran her heart out only to break her two front ankles and have to be put to death on the track in front of thousands of fans. And putting astro turf on the tracks isn't going to change the problem.


I spent some years in the stables and tracks. I know the changes which have occurred over the years. One of the worst ones is the amount of horses now allowed in the Kentucky Derby. They should have never changed the rules to allow 20 horses run, just to get bigger purses. When you have 20 horses running all bunched up like that with jockeys and whips, something is bound to go wrong. A kick in the leg, a trip in the turf from so many horses running.


It's just all about money, like so many things today. Well, it can backfire. When people come to The Derby from all over the world and see a horse die, they shy away from the sport. I know. I have a friend who told me never to call her on the phone to watch the Derby ever again as we have in past years. Even I am considering writing The Kentucky Derby off my list of "can't miss".


Changes need to be made, but who will do it? Who will stand up for the most magnificent breed in The Sport of Kings?


October 15, 2009 UPDATE


P.S. Since the tragic death of Eight Belles, there are groups of people advocating for change in the sport. However, enough is not being done. One regulation I would like to see is the ban of all steroids for horses bred for the purpose of thoroughbred horse racing. But I don't know how they would know if a yearling was given steroids before they were taken to a sale. I don't know how long steroids stay detectable in testing. I mean, those California babies were ALWAYS larger than the Kentucky foals. But that is mostly because their birthdays were different. And bigger doesn't necessarily mean their bones are stronger. But they always were larger than their East Coast counterparts. However, in my day, it wasn't because of steroids.


I wonder just how ingrained steroids are in thoroughbred horse racing today?


Does anyone know? Anyone? If so, comment HERE!


by Alida Cornelius