It’s Horse Abuse, but We Call It “Sport”

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Debbie says:

The world is buzzing with the results of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Maximum Security, a horse that only became the favorite within a day or so before the Derby, was disqualified at the finish line for crossing outside of his lane and endangering other horses and jockeys. The decision is wildly controversial, with appeals flying, lawsuits threatened, and even 45th weighing in against the decision to disqualify. Sports books and betting sites are among the big winners: they stood to lose substantial amounts if the favorite won, and can rest easy paying out the few people who bet on Country House at 65:1 odds.

Why would I talk about this in Body Impolitic? Because I found Sally Jenkins’ piece for the Washington Post, “Forget Maximum Security’s Misstep: The Whole of Horse Racing Is a Foul.” Jenkins, by the way, believes the officials at the Derby finish line made the right call — once you accept all the premises she questions:

A foul? They called a foul because Maximum Security with Luis Saez aboard swerved out of his “lane”? “He’s a baby,” Saez said rightly of his horse. Where, pray tell, was the discernible lane in all that muck and rain and screaming and flogging and young animal surging? Where is the “lane” in a sport beset by medication overuse and purse structures that incentivize racing horses even when they are hurt, in which the jockeys whip-beat their horses to the finish on a clearly unsafe wet surface the substance of farina?

This isn’t a sport; it’s a fancied-up vice. Horse people counted on the excitement of the Derby to obscure the fact that 23 horses died at Santa Anita this winter, and Churchill Downs, too, is one of the deadliest tracks in America. All you could think, during the long 22 minutes that the stewards took to review the film, as the walkers led the steaming, mud-caked contestants in cool-down circles while great plumed exhalations came from their nostrils, was, “I don’t give a damn who won; somebody just please get these horses out of the mud, and check their legs, and dry their coats, and give them something to drink.”

For all the indignities and mistreatment foisted on human athletes, at least (most) humans have the chance to walk away, to say “This isn’t worth it.” A human held on the sidelines while the judges waffle can at least scream at the judges, and might even be able to throw up her hands and head for the locker room. But a horse is at the mercy of humans–and the humans (no surprise!) care more about who won than whether the horses are taken care of in the moment.

But why would we care for horses in the moment when we don’t care for them in the long term?

Some tracks hurt horses more than others, Churchill Downs is one of them, and everybody in this beautiful-turned-rotten game knows it.

As far as chance and luck go, Churchill Downs is just lucky it doesn’t have a horror on its hands. …  As veteran Louisville Courier-Journal journalist Tim Sullivan has pointed out, 43 thoroughbreds have died of race-related injuries at Churchill Downs since 2016, a rate of 2.42 per 1,000 starts, which is 50 percent higher than the national average. Yet not until two weeks ago, amid scrutiny of its track record in the wake of the Santa Anita debacle, did Churchill Downs move to institute any common-sense reforms. It will install an equine medical center and surveillance cameras in barns and advocate for medication reform. That’s a start.

Jenkins clearly loves horse racing, and loves horses. And she sounds like she’s coming to the conclusion that if she wants to continue loving horses, she has to stop loving horse racing.

We see this story everywhere we turn: the human children at the U.S./Mexico border, or drinking water in Flint, Michigan; the racing greyhounds; the hordes of near-starving feral cats domesticated and then abandoned in cities all over the world; the ever-growing number of extinct or near-extinct species.

I don’t know any way to talk about this without cliché, but this one, like so many clichés, is a truth that needs to be universally acknowledged. We are all connected; we rely on each other. To respect and value variety and comfort in human bodies is to respect and value variety and comfort in animal bodies. And to monetize and commoditize bodies is to demean us all.

The only Kentucky Derby result anyone should be happy about is that the horses made it safely back to the barns — this time.