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.
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?”
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.”
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.
“A full gate of nine young, conditioned trotters are lining up….” And so began the track announcer’s call of Saturday’s 1st race at NY’s Tioga Downs. In a couple short minutes, one of those finely-tuned horses would “collapse and die” after finishing 3rd, the victim, as the Gaming Commission puts it, of a “probable sudden cardiac event.” A young “athlete” suffering a fatal heart attack, one assumes, is cause for a serious inquiry. But I am quite certain nothing of the sort is coming, for “Volare TZB” was just another anonymous, easily-replaced Standardbred toiling away on some nondescript American track.
When six-year-old Irish Thoroughbred St Nicholas Abbey, one of the most celebrated racehorses on the planet, broke his pastern while training in July, the prognosis was bleak. But not to fear, if a horse is valuable enough – and with huge stud fees on the horizon, he is – extraordinary measures are undertaken. Extraordinary measures here are defined as 20 screws, 2 plates, a steel pin, and a bone graft.
Coolmore Stud, the world’s largest Thoroughbred breeder and St Nicholas Abbey’s latest guardian, released this video on the procedure. But don’t be fooled by the manipulative background music, to Coolmore, this horse is but a potential revenue stream, a simple asset. And should the repair fail, boardroom tears, if any, will be shed for money lost, not because another beautiful, sensitive creature has perished. Like Barbaro before him, and in contrast to the thousands of plebeian Thoroughbreds who break and die on tracks each year, St Nicholas Abbey is being forced to endure an extended suffering. And all so that a new set of men can profit on his head (or semen, in this case).
St Nicholas Abbey’s “misfortune,” of course, has inspired a groundswell of racing-fan support. Saving a racehorse, this racehorse, is a feel-good tale. But I cannot help but wonder why these same well-wishers fall silent when horseracing sends its refuse – by the tens of thousands annually – to be strung up and slashed. Whatever the explanation, however, the horseplayer should know this: No amount of love and sympathy for the rare St Nicholas Abbey can wash the slaughterhouse blood from your hands.