3-year-old Sonic Dancer died yesterday afternoon at Keeneland. In race 6, the colt snapped his right leg and threw jockey Calvin Borel in the process. Because the stricken Borel was in harm’s way, the race was stopped, declared a no-contest. Mr. Borel appears to be fine (relative to the horse, that is). According to the DRF’s Byron King, the broken Sonic Dancer ran, presumably on adrenaline, “for a couple furlongs after unseating Borel.” Imagine that.

The death in Kentucky would have passed unnoticed if not for the dinged up Hall of Famer. There exists no chart, no video, and nothing on the Keeneland website save for an update on Borel’s condition. In fact, the DRF article doesn’t mention the kill until the second-to-last sentence.

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A tweet from the jockey’s wife says, “Prayers to the connections of the fallen horse, and thanks to God above for keeping Boo from further harm today.” Apparently, God was too busy to also protect Sonic Dancer, but I’m sure if we pray hard enough, his “connections” will overcome their grief.

As you’ve probably noticed, I am now regularly reporting all Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses vanned off American tracks after actual races (training accidents are closely guarded secrets). One pro-racing reader took umbrage at the implication, arguing that not every horse who is vanned off is destroyed. While technically true, in an industry that does all it can to squelch ugliness, calling for the ambulance in full public view is an option of last resort, typically reserved for horses in distress. Fragile from the start, a racehorse unable to walk back to the barn is a bad omen.

In any event, it is equally true that catching a ride with the paramedics is not a prerequisite for euthanasia. A recent case in point, courtesy of the sadly unique NYS database:

5-year-old Congaree King ran the 4th race at Finger Lakes last Tuesday, finishing 8th (out of 9). The chart notes were unremarkable: “broke sluggishly, lagged back four wide on the turn and tired.” That’s it. Now, he is dead. The database: “appeared lame after race-x-rays next day revealed Fx LF leg.” This is the 34th kill of the year at Finger Lakes.

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“Death is delivered pink.” And so begins an ESPN The Magazine article (5/4/09) on the track veterinarian’s unenviable role as killer of the broken. Racing calls it euthanasia, of course, but that’s simply self-absolution. In any event, this is no indictment of the vets, for as long as they continue to hold races, someone must do the dirty work.

The article follows Lauren Canady, the vet at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, early in 2009. In the first race, Canady is summoned, like a medic to the battlefield, by the radio call “A horse is down!” 4-year-old Heelbolt’s ankle has snapped. It is a horrific injury, ankle “dangling and shattered, attached only by skin,” arteries split, and “blood everywhere.” As Canady pulls up, Heelbolt is still calm, the severe pain not yet arrived. On a 0-5 scale, this is a 5. Definite euthanasia.

The scene is set: “His eyes, once coldly fixed on the track, are teary and dilated. His breathing, once quick, has quickened even more. His coat, once shiny from the pumping of oil and sweat glands, has dulled.” The vet goes to work. Stroking “his neck to say good-bye,” she administers a mix of pentobarbital (for deep sleep) and succinylcholine (to shut down the heart and brain).

And then: “Heelbolt falls under the railing, landing shoulder first, his nose in the dirt. He blinks rapidly for 10 seconds or so until his eyes, once beautifully alert, are blank. As his fellow horses, having just finished the race, jog by, his life is measured in shallow breaths — until he is no longer breathing, until he is just 1,200 pounds of expired muscle, his bloody, shattered leg hooked on a railing. It’s hard to know what a peaceful death looks like, but this isn’t it.”

Horses are not, as the author declares, “born to compete,” and heartbreaking stories like Heelbolt’s should not be found on the pages of ESPN. For all our moral posturing, especially concerning animals, passive acceptance of this quote from the article proves that some of our sensibilities remain frozen in antiquity: “…and we’re reminded that one of our country’s oldest sports is one in which the athletes sometimes die during competition.” Deaths on the playing field? Is this 2012 America or 112 Rome? I half expect Rod Serling to appear.

Oscar Pistorius, the “Blade Runner” sprinter who became a media darling at the London Olympics for competing without legs, ran a race last December against an Arabian horse in Qatar, ostensibly to raise disabilities awareness. A sorry spectacle, sure, but noteworthy here because of the merciless flogging administered to Pistorius’ equine adversary. In a 100-meter race that took about 11 seconds to run, the horse was struck at least 20 times, roughly 2 lashes per second. Imagine that.


Pistorius, of course, claims to have been unaware of the excessive beating going on behind him, a beating that would qualify as criminal had it occurred in NY. In one way, however, this video is a gift: Side-by-side, stride-for-stride, two supremely conditioned beings “compete.” One, an autonomous and self-driven embodiment of human athleticism, runs free and easy to the finish line. The other, a half-ton piece of movable property, is set (and kept) in motion by a whip. Here, in but 11 seconds, the idiocy in calling horseracing sport and the racehorse athlete is laid bare for all to see.