Viewers of Saturday's Kentucky Derby may think race horses lead lives of pampered luxury. The truth is often closer to years of abuse and a brutal end at a foreign slaughterhouse. Kentucky has too much pride to let Thoroughbreds become menu items or pet food.
Aside from Daniel Boone, George Clooney, and Loretta Lynn, Kentucky has a great deal to be proud of: majestic Cumberland Mountains, roiling Russell Fork River, cherry trees, shaker villages, fried chicken, and more artisans than you can shake a painted walking stick at.
But no emblem captures the state's beauty and spirit better than Thoroughbred horses. Across the state, you'll see horses in flesh and blood or in stone, bronze, wood, and clay. They stand in fields and shops, in restaurants and on pedestals. They are memorialized in picture frames just about everywhere you look.
Millions of Americans will watch these horses in thrilling high-definition May 7, in the flamboyant spring fiesta known as the Kentucky Derby. Casual viewers who see all the trappings of wealth at the Derby may think race horses lead lives of pampered luxury on mist-shrouded pastures of blue grass. The truth is often closer to years of abuse and a brutal end at a foreign slaughterhouse.
Kentucky has too much pride in its horses to let these majestic creatures become menu items or pet food.
Thoroughbreds sustain not only their trainers, owners, veterinarians, jockeys, and blacksmiths, but everyone from the hotel bellhop to the hot-dog vendor. Yet the price the horses pay is steep.
While Thoroughbreds' life span is about 20 to 30 years, their productive span is five or six. Loud and strong on the track, they are mute and weak when it comes to pleading their own cause: funds to care for their post-race lives.
In their prime, 90 percent of them are given Phenylbutazone, "bute," which helps them race despite injuries. Possible side effects include kidney damage, internal hemorrhage, and oral lesions. Racetrack fatalities, fractures, heart attacks, and breakdowns are ever-present hazards. The tragic, postinjury euthanization of Derby racers Barbaro and Eight Belles in recent years briefly called attention to the dark side of this industry. Has everyone forgotten?
The greatest harm, though, comes when the horses' racing days are over. Having served well while they are able, they have no Social Security or other financial protection when they can no longer earn their keep. They may be sold for low-level "claimer" races, shipped from track to track until injuries bar them from running. After their racing days are behind them, if they are too old to breed, show-jump, or do simple trail riding, they are sent to "kill auctions." Too often, it comes down to a horrific end in an abattoir.
Thanks to state bans, slaughter on US soil has stopped. And fewer horses are being shipped to Japanese slaughterhouses, where former Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand met his demise in 2002. But tens of thousands of US horses still get sent each year to Canada and Mexico. After a punishing van trip across borders, they're killed in barbaric fashion to become food.
While Kentucky should not carry all the blame for equine abuses, the "Horse Capital of the World" should lead the way in correcting the injustices of its major industry. The state Racing Commission is taking baby steps in the right direction, but so much more should be done:
The Jockey Club, which registers Thoroughbred births, should make mandatory – not voluntary as is the practice – a contribution to each foal's retirement fund.
Racetracks should bar owners or trainers who allow a horse to be shipped to slaughter from its tracks.
Congress should finally pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.
We should require the accurate reporting of injuries during training as well as during races.
Research on safer track surfaces is currently being done, but as with drugging, whipping, and other welfare standards, unanimous regulations don't exist. Why not?
It's time for the "Horse Capital of the World" to become the winner it could be. It should provide for its defenseless champions and turn the Derby into a source of dignity and honor instead of shame.