Chris Englehart is a famous Thoroughbred trainer. In fact, he’s one of the best in the business, a virtual winning machine: top-10 five years running, over $33 million career earnings. This being horseracing, however, with success, comes baggage: Among his numerous fines, Mr. Englehart counts five drug-related suspension judgments since 2005, the most recent a NY 60-day TCO2 overage served earlier this year. There’s more, of course. Since 2009, 20 of his charges have perished while training or racing on NY tracks. 20. The latest victim, a four-year-old named Attenborough, fell Saturday at Belmont, Englehart’s second death there in three days (Skiddles n’ Bob).

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But the week’s carnage at Belmont Park was not yet complete. Like Attenborough, the Robert Hess-trained Maui Mark (pictured below), broke and died while “breezing,” an innocuous sounding racing activity that sometimes ends with pentobarbital. For Mr. Hess, himself a wildly successful trainer, that’s three Belmont deaths this year (Spit Ball, Parasol). Belmont Park, one of NY’s racing “jewels,” can now boast 21 dead horses since the beginning of 2013.

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Equine advocates often decry the racing of two-year-olds, and for good reason. But what many may not fully understand is that forcing two-year-olds onto the track is only marginally worse, medically speaking, than doing the same to three and four-year-olds, for the horse does not reach musculoskeletal maturity until an age when racing, for the most part, has already deemed him washed up.

First, a little history. A couple centuries back, racehorses were asked to run multiple heats of four miles each…on the same day. Shockingly, at least to us, a race-day in excess of 12 miles was not uncommon. But in the late 19th Century, futurities changed racing forever. As the name indicates, these contests were initially intended to generate interest in tomorrow’s “stars.” But because everyone knew that racing three-year-olds for many miles was a bad idea, futurities were run as sprints instead of marathons. The public loved them, and the profits flowed. And so was born modern horseracing and with it, the decidedly unready two- and three-year-old racehorse.

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The science of a horse’s physical maturation is well-established. To simplify, although some bones will reach full length early on, the filling out (girth) takes longer. And the higher up the body, the slower the process. What’s more, growth plates in the spine are still unfused at three, with those in the base of the neck the last to fully close, somewhere around six. Only then, does a horse reach skeletal maturity.

While the current racing model may have begun by accident, preserving it is anything but. Although fully aware that a racehorse will not reach his “athletic prime” – run his fastest – until 6-10, horseracing deftly markets its three-year-old product as the pinnacle of competition. They do this because waiting for maturity would be cost-prohibitive. With this ruse firmly entrenched, media and fans rarely, if ever, question the wisdom of forcing adolescents to perform like developed adults. But make no mistake, a Derby horse is physically more Little Leaguer than 30-year-old pro.

Still, some apologists ask, if considered safe and acceptable to place a 13-year-old gymnast on a rigorous regimen, why not a 3-year-old colt? Well: When injured, she gets rest; he gets dope. When broken, she gets crutches; he gets pentobarbital. When “retired,” she goes to college; he goes to the abattoir. She is an end; he is a means. Not the same at all.

On Thursday morning, Belmont Park claimed its first two victims of the Fall Meet. Three-year-old Mentor Cane, who finished 2nd in a Grade 1 at Saratoga last month, “suffered a right-hind lateral condylar fracture and a comminuted right-hind P1 fracture” while training and was euthanized on the track. The other, five-year-old Skiddles n’ Bob, was also training when misfortune (snapped sesamoids) struck. Curiously (not really), while the passing of budding star Mentor Cane (pictured below) is prominently noted on NYRA’s website, career claimer Skiddles, who had a combined 10 different trainers and owners in two short years, receives nary a mention.

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Like clockwork, the usual odious comments from “family” (the horses’ people, at least the most recent ones) and “friends” (gamblers) have arrived: Mentor Cane’s trainer, John Shirreffs, says (Daily Racing Form, 9/12/13), “It’s heart-breaking.” And jockey Edgar Prado: “It’s a shame because he could’ve had a great future.” Some tweets on Skiddles: “Condolences to all the connections. That’s tough.”; “Im so sorry. Its so hard when these things happen.. My Condolences…”

When reading the fans’ lament, I am almost invariably left dumbfounded, wondering how otherwise intelligent, educated people can be so blind. Well, once again, here is the simple and irrefutable truth: Each and every horseplayer is complicit in each and every death. Tragedies like Mentor Cane and Skiddles n’ Bob end only with shuttered betting windows.

In a recent Irish Independent article (9/8/13), sportswriter John O’Brien takes American racing to task for promulgating the notion that Lasix is a humane application of medicine. He writes: “To any rational mind or to those who love racing, though not at the expense of a horse’s welfare, the permitted use of race-day medications like the anti-bleeding drug, Lasix, represents a stain on the sport that needs to be wiped away in the interests of credibility.”

He continues, “The view so often put forward in defence of Lasix is that, whatever else the drug does, it does nothing to enhance a horse’s performance. It is, runs the argument of the trainers and horsemen most anxious to keep Lasix off the banned lists, an issue of medication, never one of deliberate doping. To which there can only ever be one reasonable answer. Who are these people kidding?”

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O’Brien notes that roughly 5% of American horses problematically bleed, but almost all receive raceday Lasix. They do, he suggests, because trainers know that Lasix is a powerful diuretic that both sheds water weight (lighter = faster) and facilitates a system flush. In other words, if trainers are trying to hide things they’re not supposed to be doing, Lasix, as many wayward human athletes can attest, is quite effective.

Recently, the Breeders’ Cup, the richest and perhaps most prestigious racing event in the world, not only reneged on a promised across-the-board Lasix ban, but also lifted (effective 2014) the current one for juveniles. This, because American horsemen threw a temper tantrum. O’Brien says that U.S. racing should be, but probably isn’t, ashamed. In the final analysis, according to the rest of the world, Lasix is nothing more than an entire nation cheating. This is American horseracing.

If ever there were a reason for racing patrons to come, the summer-long 150th anniversary celebration of “America’s Oldest Sports Arena” should have been it. But it wasn’t. Not only did attendance decline almost 4% from last year, but the daily average attendance is down over 25% from the high set in 2003 (21,679 against 29,147). What’s more, the ’13 average is the lowest in the last 10 years. In a post-meet column for The Saratogian (9/7/13), sportswriter and apologist Mike Veitch worries for Saratoga’s future, arguing that NYRA greed (more days, more races) threatens to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

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Others are more inclined to blame the weather (isn’t it always the weather?) or, more often, the economy. But as I’m fairly certain that this economy is better than the 2009-2011 editions, that explanation rings hollow. I’d like to offer one of my own by paraphrasing a Clinton ’92 campaign slogan: It’s the product, stupid. Now seems a good time to re-post something I recently wrote for our Facebook page:

Horseracing is in trouble. Although much of that is due to gambling competition and the growing reluctance of state governments to continue subsidizing the industry (racinos), an emerging public sensibility also plays a part. Because of this, advocates must not squander this unique moment in time. By persistently exposing the horseracing wrongs – doping, breaking, slaughtering, et al. – a planet devoid of “The Sport of Kings” can be achieved. Imagine that.

This point in animal-exploitation history reminds me of President Lincoln’s famous telegram to General Grant towards the war’s end: “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.” Indeed, let the thing be pressed.