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Archive for January 30, 2007

Jan. 30, 2007 — It’s a life, not “the horse.”

Barbaro was euthanized yesterday after eight months of discomfort. And something in me says that should never have happened.

If you don’t know who Barbaro is, you probably aren’t alone. Horse racing, the so-called “Sport of Kings,” is one of many athletic endeavors which have fallen out of the favor of the sporting public in recent years.

It used to be that thousands of people would attend racing meets, place bets at the track for only the upcoming race, and entries and results would be a part of the local paper.

Today, only a handful of people go to most tracks, and sometimes even if they do go, the action in front of them is irrelevant. Simulcasting of races around the country allow horsemen to place several bets per hour. And horse results have been cut out of many newspapers because of shrinking space as well as the ease of information gathering through the Internet. Race tracks have even had to resort to installing slot machines in them to make money and bring people through the doors.

Part of the downward spiral was, oddly enough, engendered by a female horse.

In 1975, a filly named Ruffian was pitted against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure in a match race on live television. It was the mid-70s, two years after Bobby Riggs played Billie Jean King in another “battle of the sexes,” and the Equal Rights Amendment was up for ratification.

In the midst of the backstretch, Ruffian came up lame, breaking her right foreleg. Surgery was performed, but she had to be euthanized the next morning.

There was a public outcry back then, some 32 years ago, for better treatment of race horses. What happened was the use of anti-inflammatory agents for pain management and anti-bleeding drugs such as Lasix. That, and more aggressive inbreeding of championship horses at stud have, according to some experts, led to much more fragile racehorses.

Horses, you must realize, run on hard hoofs with very little protective tissue at the base of the leg, supporting muscular torsos on impossibly thin legs. One flaw in any part of one leg leads to the other three legs having to support all of the weight of the animal. Due to the increasing fragility as part of the inbreeding process, it has been estimated that the best horses are run half as often as their counterparts in the golden age of racing.

Now, between Ruffian’s breakdown in 1975 and Barbaro’s breakdown at the Preakness last year, there was another major incident that really hit home for me when it came to horse racing. One Breeders’ Cup, two horses were killed. I opined in my old newspaper that it was the biggest story of the year gone by. “How would you have felt if Jerry Rice had collapsed and died short of the goal line in the Super Bowl?” I asked.

As for Barbaro, I knew pretty much from when I first heard that doctors at the University of Pennsylvania were going to try to intervene that it was a fool’s errand. Three legs weren’t going to support his weight for very long, despite technology or the hubris of the owners trying to keep him alive so that he could have sired.

What would he have sired? Colts even more fragile than he? In a Darwinian way, it was for the best.

However, many people in the horse community didn’t see the reality. When Barbaro developed the abcess that would eventually lead to his being euthanized, I listened to a radio report that said that he was feeling no pain — just a day before that turned out to not be true. And in that report, the commentator, like so many others, turned the story into an abstraction by using the term “the horse” instead of his name.

Barbaro may have been a great example of an athletic horse and an example of what breeding could do, but the thing is, very few people care about the sport anymore. It’s right down there with professional bowling and barrel-jumping on ice skates as relics of a bygone age.

Speaking of, the Miss America Pageant was held last night. Wonder what those ratings were compared to the average televised horse race?