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


  1. Thanks you for this informative article...its so very sad. As a horse lover and owner, I feel even more strongly about the flaws of horse racing. That little filly gave her all...only to be put down as her reward. So sad!


  2. What great insight you have provided, into what goes on "behind the scenes." Thank you, Alida, I really appreciate you taking the time to share this information as well as a little bit more about your own background.
    The death of that horse is truly heartbreaking. I read about it but not until reading this blog do I understand the additional tragedy involved. Thanks for the info.

  3. I was aware of the plight of Greyhounds but had no idea that race horses faced a similar fate. The rigorous training they receive at such a young age coupled with their genetic backgrounds is sad when money is the ultimate goal. Animals in general bring us such joy and yet certain human beings find it "ok" to exploit them.


  4. Alida I enjoyed your article on the horse racing, but it is sad what happened to that horse eight belles. Keep up the great work..

  5. Thank you so much for keeping us informed, this is a tragedy

  6. I am a horse lover and so I find this tragedy terrible and uncalled for. Those beautiful animals need an advocate, just as mustangs do. People betray their animals trust for cash. Look at what is going on in the Tennessee Walking Horse and American Saddlebred industries, they are actually putting nails into the foot of the horse to get it to lift it's foot higher. One person on the circuit told me she could even hear the horse cry when they did that and that it was painful to hear. I had been going to horse shows but I stopped that when I heard that.

  7. Dear Alida--we all share an interest in the welfare of the horse. And, everybody's got their view. For those that really want to help the horse there needs to be careful analysis of issues, and applied science in place of half baked opinions and agendas. There were indeed causes for the death of 8 Belles, and you may be getting warm when you write of greed, although I'd more suspect merely a desire on the part of the connections to compete. And, there are causes for mistreatment of horses and results from the particular solutions that are being implied. Be aware that much of your post echos overreaction, misunderstanding and down right error regarding what is good for the horse. We are unable to do these animals any good by supposing their legs are too thin or they should not have riders as youngsters when the truth is just the opposite. Nor do we suppose these causes resulted in the death of 8 Belles whereas if you examine the training of that horse you will understand the death was caused by training negligence, nothing else. Again, I welcome interest in our sport and urge deeper analysis. Best of luck!

  8. "rather rapid", I don't have an email address for you, so I shall respond to your comment here...if you know anything about dog breeding, you know that the gene pool gets smaller with registered AKC dogs. Dachshunds today in the USA don't look like the dachshunds which were bred to hunt small animals, such as ground hogs....their legs are thin in this country today and most couldn't kill a ground hog if their life depended on it.

    The same is happening with thoroughbreds horses. Does anyone breed for strength of their legs? Or do they breed for their sire or dam's winnings?

    I could talk about Angus bull breeding and how they have bred them and how their legs are also barely able to hold up their weight when they read maturity.

    I could go on further about horses being in training too young with riders aboard, but I already stated my views on that. Most horse people know you don't ride a two year old.

  9. Alida--respect everyone's opinions, and certainly the idea that TBs are weaker today than their recent ancestors is an idea shared even by the likes of Rick Arthur DVM running CA State's Vet's Office. Yet, this probably is one of the mistaken notions diverting thought from real causes. Unless someone presents some actual evidence that--per your post--cannon bones are thinner, less dense, weaker somehow, than in the recent past--and be assured there is zero science to this effect other than mere supposition similar to your post--how can we take this as true. I'll avoid elabortation that there is substantial evidence to the contrary other than to say that evolution simply fails to work this quickly. There is more evidence available as to the soundness advantage of riding or declining to ride young horses. Suggest the exhaustive Maryland Shin study to you that "appropriate" speed exercise while young bones are in a state of development produces greater subsequent bone strength than starting later. But, there is a lot more. I have advanced to you that horse break downs result from trainer negligence. In this regard suggest that you examine the pre-derby training of 8 Belles. Here is a e.g. of what you will find:
    1. The 2008 horse with the most speed work for the year: Pyro with 17 breeze/races. 8 Belles had 9. The next to last horse in that field besides 8 Belles was Big Brown, who had off time due to quarter cracks, with 11.
    2. The 2008 horse with the highest number of speed furlongs for the year (breeze/races) was Smooth Air with 107. 8 Belles had 52. Again 8 Belles had the least amount of speed training as any horse in the field, and the next to the last horse above her were Momba with 63, Cowboy Cal with 62 and Big Brown with 56. Incidentally, Cowboy Cal and Momba also suffered injuries in this race.
    3. In addition to her woefully inadequate track work, what track work 8 Belles did get was primarily squeezed into the 5 weeks pre-derby. i.e. the horse was "surprised" with a sudden increase in her training regimen for which she had not been prepared. The final nail in the coffin for 8 Belles probably came when she did a :58+ breeze on Saturday before the Derby followed by a fast mile under Larry Jones 200 lbs the following Tuesday that shows Jones taking her in :14s the last 3 of those furlongs. I personally am without any doubt had this horse's cannons been under infrared thermography before the Derby the condylar aspects would have lit up like a Xmas tree.

    The above is the sort of thing that needs to be considered before jumping on the drug/genetic bandwagon. Much of the research has been done, and it points in other directions.

  10. So, you think giving a horse cough medication so it will run faster is a good thing?
    This isn't just about Eight's about the racing industry overall.

  11. Here's some information based on scientific research and facts rather than emotion, if you're interested, related to the myth that riding and training racehorses at age two is harmful.

    This is from Dr Larry Bramlage, preeminent vet known the world over, chairman, of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation's Veterinary Advisory Committee, where he "collates input from his committee of 15 other practicing veterinarians":

    Charge number one: The training and racing of 2-year-old Thoroughbreds is predisposing these horses to accelerated rates of injury and prematurely shortened careers.

    This charge is leveled by some people in and out of the horse industry, especially people outside of racing. It is a very popular theme with animal welfare organizations that are ill informed on the topic of racing and the horse; it is also parroted frequently in the popular press.

    To examine these data The Jockey Club Information Systems extracted one-year windows at five-year intervals, using the years 1975 through 2000 as data sets. Horses were divided into the categories "raced as two-year-olds" and "raced, but not as two-year-olds." The data shows a definitive answer to this charge.

    The first category of data examined was average starts per starter lifetime. The data shows that horses that raced as 2-year-olds raced many more times in their lifetime in each of the years examined when compared to horses that did not race until after their 2-year-old season. Some of these starts were made in the 2-year-old year for the horses that raced at 2, but the difference was more marked than the 2-year-old year alone would account for.

    Average lifetime earnings per starter for horses that raced as 2-year-olds are almost twice the amount earned by horses that did not race as 2-year-olds.

    Career average earnings per start for horses that raced as 2-year-olds exceeded average earnings per start for horses that did not race as 2-year-olds in every one of the years from 1975 to 2000 examined.

    Lastly, the percent stakes winners in horses that raced as 2-year-olds is nearly three times higher than in horses that did not race until their 3-year-old year or later.

    This data is definitive. It shows that horses that began racing as 2-year-olds are much more successful, have much longer careers, and, by extrapolation, show less predisposition to injury than horses that did not begin racing until their 3-year-old year. It is absolute on all the data sets that the training and racing of 2-year-old Thoroughbreds has no ill effect on the horses' race-career longevity or quality. In fact, the data would indicate that the ability to make at least one start as a 2-year-old has a very strong positive affect on the longevity and success of a racehorse. This strong positive effect on the quality and quantity of performance would make it impossible to argue that these horses that race as 2-year-olds are compromised.



  12. 95% of TB race horses show varying degree of respiratory disease. (Book at Amazon--speed in the racehorse--the airflow factors) there are different forms of the disease including gutteral pouch secretions that literally shut off breathing--the horse is unable to catch a breath--for several strides. some horses are unable to breathe "in" at times, others unable to breathe out or respirate. Trainers have developed certain concoctions to aid horses with their breathing which have zero to do with performance and simply deal with allowing troubled horses to breathe same as the rest of the field. You'd have to be on a horse to fully appreciate the problems, solutions and workings that the "anti drug" crowd never considers due to sheer lack of knowing. "agendas" and mistaken ideas instead of science and knowledge can do as much damage to the animals in general as the supposed evils.

  13. Hi, Erin..thanks for stopping by, however this isn't about how successful a horse is as a two year old's about the healthy training of a horse and what a 125 pound or more exercise boy/girl/man/woman is doing to the legs of a two year old at the pace they are put through.

    Read this about what you should do to train a two or three year old and compare it to what thoroughbreds are being put through...

    Being a jockey is the most dangerous and under-rated sports job out there...if the PR people focused more on the jockey's like Nascar and other sports, maybe the pressure would be off the horses....I love the sport...but not how it has evolved today.

    Read this..I could post a whole lot more, but I know what I am talking about...

    Come back and visit sometimes...

  14. Thanks for the levelheaded response, Alida, but I can't possibly give the same credibility to an anonymous answerer in what is essentially an editorial on, as I do to a world-renowned vet and actual scientific research.

    And I think it's obvious one can extrapolate that a "financially successful" racehorse is also a horse that has not broken down.

    Now I'm not saying racing doesn't have problems, it surely does - and enough of them that there's no need to espouse mythical problems that have been disproven by science.

  15. And besides, according to the article you just referenced:

    "A two year old should have excellent ground manners, including loading onto a trailer, whether the next step to riding or driving will be taken sooner or later. A two year old can be lunged, ground driven, round penned, driven hitched to a light vehicle, and at the owner's discretion, ridden."


  16. Ridden, yes...but what sort of riding????? I suppose on the subject of how much a horse should be ridden as a two year old, we shall never see eye to eye, and it's that way in the horse industry overall...there will probably always be two sides. I know if I ask some vets and experts, they will disagree with your experts.
    (Sort of like the Democrats and the Republicans)

    I wonder, in the days when Churchill Downs was founded, how long their horses were in training before they raced?

    I would like to know more about training in the old days. The REAL OLD days.

    They didn't use drugs.

    I have a friend in the trotting/pacing business. If they don't give their horses lasix, they bleed through their noses. Did horses noses bleed all the time before the days of lasix?

    I wish someone could answer that question for me.

  17. They didn't use drugs in the old days???? Please talk to any racing historian...look up Phar Lap's story, something.

    FYI racehorses don't need to bleed to get lasix and most who are on it never have bled. Every handicapper knows to bet a horse on first time lasix - and why? Because it is a performance enhancer. Although no one admits it. And yes, I'd love to see it banned. It is in all other racing countries.

    Wondering why you didn't publish my other comment? Or maybe there was a glitch...if so, my point was the credibility of an anonymous author writing what is essentially an editorial on is in no way comparable to the opinions of Dr. Bramlage, a world-renowned vet, and scientific research, and I at a loss to understand how anyone could equate the two.

    And that there are plenty real problems with horse racing without spreading around myths that have already been disproven by science. Let's get to the real problems - drugs, risks after racing careers end, and the need for a unifying governing body with teeth to enforce these rules.

  18. Self delusion is the human stock-in-trade. If it profits you (not necessarily monetarily)you will ignore the consequences for others. Thats why bull fighting, horse racing, cock fighting (especially in the Good Old Days in Key West and nowadays on Stock Island))and boxing (even in modern Key West) are spectator sports people bet on.

  19. Ah, cock fighting....yup, we like to bet on animals...
    Conchscooter, you are the philosopher of Key West...I know your blog.
    Thanks for stopping by, darlin'.