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.

Bloodhorse reports (10/17/13) that 6-year-old Take Control was euthanized at Santa Anita after, in the words of trainer Bob Baffert, “he took a bad step” while breezing. With only four career starts (and at least two surgeries), his death, I suppose, is newsworthy because of lineage (AP Indy, Azeri) and past value (“a $7.7 million RNA at the 2008 Keeneland September yearling sale”).

photo: Bloodhorse
photo credit: Bloodhorse

As this was a public passing (in contrast to the vast majority of racing kills), trainer Baffert was duty-bound to offer lament: “It’s really tough…he’s a nice horse, and he’s been with us a long time. It was a really sad day at the barn. It’s a part of the business that makes you not want to be in it, but things happen, and it’s just bad luck. One bad step and that’s what happens.” And the beat goes on…

Formulaforsuccess, six, died during yesterday’s 3rd race at Belmont Park. The Gaming Commission simply says he “went over inside rail and died.” But Equibase offers a bit more detail: “[Formulaforsuccess] was eased at the quarter pole and in the midst of being brought to a stop a furlong out [collapsed] of an apparent cardiac arrest.”

The replay (Race Replays, Friday, Race 3) reveals little. All we get from the announcer, presumably right before the horse died, is “Formulaforsuccess is plummeting to the back of the pack.” This is Belmont’s 29th death of the year.

In 2006, William Rhoden of The New York Times wrote an article (5/25/06) contrasting two breakdowns in May of that year. The first, Barbaro, received international attention upon shattering his leg in the Preakness Stakes. Four days later, a nondescript horse named Lauren’s Charm fell (of an apparent heart attack) at Belmont. Rhoden writes:

“THERE was no array of photographers at Belmont Park yesterday, no sobbing in the crowd as a badly injured superstar horse tried to stay erect on three legs. There was no national spotlight. Instead, there was death.”

When Lauren’s Charm collapsed, “no one, except those associated with the horse and two track veterinarians, seemed to notice.” With Barbaro, however, “a national audience gasped; an armada of rescuers rushed to the scene. In the days that followed, as the struggle to keep Barbaro alive took full shape, there was an outpouring of emotion across the country and heartfelt essays about why we care so much about these animals.”

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“But I’m not so sure we do, and I’m not so sure the general public fully understands this sport. When people attempt to rationalize the uneasy elements of racing, they often say: ‘That’s part of the business. That’s the game.’ But there was nothing beautiful or gracious or redeeming about the seventh race at Belmont. This was the underside of the business. The nuts-and-bolts part, where animals are expendable parts of a billion-dollar industry.”

Rhoden sets the scene:

“The dead animal was loaded in the ambulance and carted to the track’s stable area, where it was put on its side, legs bent as if it were still running. The horseshoes had not been removed. The carcass was then half carried and half pushed into an area designated for autopsies. An earthmover helped push the horse against a concrete wall.

The gate to the fenced-in area was closed. I glanced back at Lauren’s Charm, lying on the ground. Just days ago, the cameras were trained on Pimlico, and a nation cried for Barbaro. I wonder what the nation would have thought about this.”

He concludes:

“One animal breaks an ankle on national television in a Triple Crown race and sets off a national outpouring of emotion. A 4-year-old collapses and dies in full view on a sunny afternoon and not many seem to notice. Or care. As they say, it’s the business. But what kind of business is this?”

A shameful one.