When confronted with the fact that no racehorse has ever given its consent to participate in an industry that endangers life and limb, racing enthusiasts insist the horses LOVE to run. In addition, they argue if the horses didn’t love racing, they simply would not run. A common phrase is “You can’t make a 1000-pound animal do something it doesn’t want to do”…therefore, they infer, the horses must enjoy it and their consent is implied. Of course we all know man CAN make a 1000-pound animal – and much larger creatures – perform or behave a certain way, and racehorses are no exception.
Training techniques aside, simply being in a running (racing) herd (the field) is enough to compel the equine (racehorse) to run. Surely racing fans have witnessed jockeys struggling to pull up even a severely injured racehorse while the rest of the field gallops ahead: Chris Antley with Charismatic after the wire of the 1999 Belmont; Edgar Prado and Barbaro merely seconds into the 2006 Preakness. And who can ever erase from their minds the horror of seeing Go for Wand’s catastrophic breakdown in the final stretch of the 1990 BC Distaff. While her jockey, Randy Romero, rolled away to escape being trampled, the 3-year-old filly was left on her own after having gone down. With her right foreleg dangling – snapped in two between her knee and ankle – she struggled to her feet then hobbled on three legs in the direction of the finish line. Horses’ instincts urge them to stay within the safety of the herd…alone they are vulnerable, injured, a target.
I had witnessed similar scenes at Great Lakes Downs during my years with CANTER-Michigan. A 2-year-old colt that suffered a compound fracture of a foreleg midway through the race unseated his rider then attempted to run on. Only after the other horses crossed the finish line and cantered on around the turn, out of sight, did the little chestnut cease trying to run. Yet he still sought protection as he staggered three-legged towards the paddock where some of the ponies were standing.
Then there were the horses that I knew were not sound but still racing. I would see these horses on a Saturday morning, during the rescue’s weekly track visits, and hear about their “knee chip” or “slight bow.” Yet their trainers were not ready to let them retire and enter the rescue’s program – they wanted to run them “a few more times.” Some we would eventually acquire, but often, their injuries had become too severe and incompatible with a pain-free life. Others I would never see again…they were sold in “package deals” to trainers racing in another state or handed off to the resident kill buyer/trainer. But they ran with injuries – not because they loved to run, but because of training and instincts. And this was the case with Cabriolass.
I had been informed of an injured gelding whose new owner was going to keep the 6-year-old running. Cabriolass was Ontario-bred and had run all but two of his races at Canadian tracks. As a 3-year-old, he placed 2nd in the Sir Barton Stakes at Woodbine. By the time the dark bay found himself with a new owner and trainer at Great Lakes Downs in Michigan, he had earned 200K for his connections. He had a “bad knee” – “bone on bone,” I was told – and was receiving injections into the damaged joint. In spite of his injured limb, Cabriolass had run second in his first race for his new O/T on October 8, 2007. I approached his trainer, carefully choosing my words about acquiring the gelding for retirement so as not to give away how much I knew about Cabriolass’ condition and the source of my information. I was turned down immediately, yet was told to “have a price in mind”…I put Cabriolass in my virtual stable.
The notification came that Cabriolass was entered again, two weeks later on October 22. I inquired a second time about purchasing him, but was turned down yet again. In an effort to keep him from racing, I notified Michigan’s racing commissioner of Cabriolass’ injury. And as is required by racing regulations, I asked that the gelding receive a pre-race lameness exam. I was put in touch with the state Racing Commission veterinarian and after our conversation was promised there would be a thorough assessment before he was allowed to run.
On October 22 in a 4K claiming race, Cabriolass ran in his 34th lifetime start. I don’t know if the promised lameness examination took place or not, but my attempt to spare him from racing failed. He had to run, and run he did…the gallant gelding won the race by over five lengths. He earned $3900 for his connections that night. The next morning his trainer called me, finally accepting my $600 offer – my heart sank in the realization that this was the trainer’s admission that Cabriolass was spent. I picked him up that day and nearly bit my tongue off in an effort to keep quiet as I watched him limp onto my trailer. It was woefully astounding that this miserably lame horse had been the victor just 18 hours earlier.
Radiographs of Cabriolass’ left knee revealed a pre-existing large fracture, severe end-stage arthritis, and loss of joint cartilage over a large surface (bone on bone). In addition, the broken bones’ sharp edges during the rigors of racing had caused extensive soft tissue damage. There was no future for Cabriolass. No opportunity for a family to love and care for him. No possibility to live simply as a cherished horse. Cabriolass was raced to death.
Horses don’t race because they love to run. Cabriolass didn’t race, with a badly broken knee, because he loved to run. I, for one, am weary of this tired excuse. And horses are dead because of it.
Postscript: Cabriolass was humanely euthanized due to the severity of his racing injuries. Michigan’s racing commissioner and the state veterinarian were notified of Cabriolass’ radiographic results and full evaluation findings, performed by Michigan State University Large Animal Clinic’s equine orthopedic surgeon. No investigation was ever performed.