When I wrote about Belmont’s stellar weekend on Monday, the NYS Gaming Commission had yet to register the Saturday death of a four-year-old named Discreet Code. The gelding, whose last finish was at Saratoga, broke his leg during the 4th race, was “ambulanced off,” and subsequently euthanized. So, in actuality, Belmont Park killed five horses in four days, a pace, surely, NYRA is loath to maintain.
Zilpaterol, marketed as Zilmax, is a feed additive given to close-to-slaughter cattle that according to its maker, Merck, “improves cattle’s natural ability to convert feed into more lean beef.” Pumps them up. In any event, it was never intended for horses, something Merck makes clear on its website: Do not allow horses or other equines access to feed containing zilpaterol. This, according to a North Dakota State University trial (Horse Science News), is what zilpaterol does to horses:
“…three healthy horses were fed zilpaterol. The horses’ physical response was almost immediate. Within 25 minutes after taking zilpaterol, the horses became restless, started sweating profusely and developed muscle tremors. A few minutes later, their heart rates climbed. Muscle tremors lasted for a week and the rapid heart rates lasted for up to two weeks before returning to normal. Blood tests revealed indications of muscle damage. One horse also apparently suffered kidney damage. The horses received just two doses of zilpaterol before researchers halted the trail.”
Genaro Vallejo is a California-based trainer with a handful of bute overages on his record. But it appears that for this multiple graded stakes winner, bute has become child’s play. In April 2012, Vallejo’s horse, Red Dwarf (who won), tested positive for the aforementioned zilpaterol at Golden Gate Fields. Punishment, as it turns out, took 17 months to arrive. For a Class 1 violation (the worst kind), Vallejo, according to the Paulick Report (9/16/13), has been suspended 30 days. For perspective, Bill Finley, a racing writer (and apologist), says (ESPN, 7/5/12), “Anyone using a Class 1 drug belongs in prison.”
Racing officials have once again made a mockery of their supposed recommitment to integrity. In truth, however, you can’t get back to something that never was: Any business that owes its entire existence to exploitation is and will always be necessarily devoid of integrity.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.