Say this about NY, at least it has the courage (relative, that is) to record and publicly post all racehorse injuries and deaths from its 11 tracks. Alas, nothing of the sort exists in another tradition-rich state, Kentucky. But every once in a while, usually when a jockey gets hurt, a racing death makes the news. This past Saturday, during the 4th race at Churchill Downs, jockey Joe Rocco Jr took a spill, prompting a precautionary trip to the hospital. Rocco appears to be fine. His mount, however, did not fare as well, suffering “a catastrophic fracture” before being euthanized on-track. Wash Park, dead at six.

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The Race Replay (Wash Park crumples at 1:12)

For the rest of the six-minute video, we get slow-motion replays of the finish, a “good-news” update on Rocco, and a lead-up to the winner’s circle and trophy presentation, complete with birthday wishes. Not another word on the dying Wash Park. This left me wondering: How can people – track announcer, Churchill officials, “connections” of the winner – who probably consider themselves decent, even ethical, continue with the merrymaking as decidedly unnecessary pain and destruction goes on behind them? It’s a question, I suppose, better left to the psychologists.

A recent Daily Racing Form article (9/20/13) suggests that the pervasive doping in horseracing has a silver lining. Well, sort of. First, the bad news: trainers, of course, are dumping illegal junk into their horses, and because labs are always playing catch-up, much of it is hard to detect. But the good news, at least for a publication most concerned with the integrity of the bet, is that some of the drugs – or drug knock-offs – “are nothing more than the equine equivalent of snake oil.”

The California Horse Racing Board’s Dr. Rick Arthur: “A lot of this stuff is bull—-. There are probably trainers out there who think they are using ITPP [an illegal performance-enhancer], and they aren’t. It says ITPP on the label, but it’s just a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work and isn’t even illegal.”

The “stuff” – legal and otherwise, effective and otherwise – can be easily found at sites like horseprerace.com. But the products – “Green Speed,” “Lightning Injection,” “Blast Off Ice” – and ridiculously low prices should prompt caveat emptor. Arthur: “The RMTC recently got sent what was supposed to be cone-snail venom [a painkiller], and it was just a bunch of amino acids. And yet the guy who was using it said that it was the best cone-snail venom he’d ever used.” Pity the gullible cheating trainer, for he is being cheated himself.

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So now racing officials must decide whether or not to expend tight resources developing tests for drugs that don’t enhance performance. Dr. Dionne Benson of the RMTC: “That’s the big question. What they are doing is illegal, and we feel like we should have an ability to crack down on it. But that means we might not be able to do something else.” In other words, we know you’re trying to cheat, but no edge no foul. Not surprisingly, the DRF has nothing to say on how this dummy dope may affect a horse’s long-term health. In racing, what passes for ethics is cracking down on the drugs that make horses run faster. For that would be unfair.

Up until very recently, knowledge and appreciation of the equine mind has been noticeably lacking. Sure, we’ve learned rudimentary things about horses through the years, but only enough to breed and maintain pliability. Now, though, scientific curiosity is leading some to dig deeper. Biologist Dr. Evelyn Hanggi, co-founder of the Equine Research Foundation, is among the nation’s leading experts on equine intelligence. From her 2005 paper, “The Thinking Horse: Cognition and Perception Reviewed”:

“A review of the scientific literature, as well as practical experience, shows that horses excel at simpler forms of learning such as classical and operant conditioning…. Furthermore, horses have shown ease in stimulus generalization and discrimination learning. Most recently and unexpected by many, horses have solved advanced cognitive challenges involving categorization learning and some degree of concept formation.” In short, she says, “Horses, both feral and domesticated, are faced with varied conditions that require an assortment of learning and perceptual capabilities.”

The small-brained horse, Dr. Hanggi points out, is an unkind myth: A horse’s brain is not the size of a walnut (400-700 grams compared to 15); in fact, this “complex organ” has many folds and “more folds, more brainpower.” It is equally untrue that their “flight instinct” (“spook-and-bolt”) is a sign of low intelligence. Dr. Hanggi (Horse Illustrated, 2001): “Horses spook not because they are stupid but because they are smart enough to have survived a few million years.”

Although horses do seem to have a propensity to hurt themselves on doors and fences – seen as “dumb” animal behavior by some – it’s because they are supposed to live on wide-open ranges, not “in small, dark enclosures with sharp edges.” This cruel confinement (for most racehorses, over 23 hours a day) causes mental anguish, as evidenced by “cribbing, weaving, head bobbing, pacing, and self-mutilation.”

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Horses can sort geometric shapes into specific classes and have demonstrated an ability to conceptualize. By virtue of an “exceptional memory,” they can “generalize about things they have never seen before.” Oh, and they can count. In short, Dr. Hanggi says, “…horses possess some learning abilities akin to those of the more accepted animal intellectuals, i.e., dolphins, sea lions and chimpanzees – the result being a far cry from simple conditioning.”

But when questioning the morality of horseracing, the relative intelligence of the horse is largely inconsequential. What matters, what should force introspection, is his ability to suffer. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham: “What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Sulwaan, a six-year-old Irish Thoroughbred who began his “career” in England, was killed Thursday after being injured in a steeplechase race at Belmont Park. Besides the ill-fated gelding, 3 others were official DNFs. Thus far in 2013, with more than a month of racing yet to come, Belmont has lost 23 horses.

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points of interest in the race replay below:

Dr. Skip “spilling” at the 3rd fence (1:12)
Cognashene “blasting right through the [4th] fence” (1:54)
Sulwaan “pulling up” after the 9th fence (3:28)
homestretch “guiding” of the six horses who did finish (around 4:20)

the race… (hit Race Replays, then Thursday, September 19, Race 1)