Friday, May 30, 2008

Eight Belles On Kentucky Derby Day, 2008

By Melodee Shelley-Bolmgren and Katie Merwick

Chez Chevaux and Second Chance Ranch were invited to share in the festivities of Derby day at Emerald Downs. The Washington horse racing community and Emerald Downs truly care about the health and welfare of thoroughbreds during and after their racing careers. Proof of this is evidenced by the newly established Prodigious Fund which will help us support our missions of thoroughbred transitioning and retirement. They donated table space, two pages of free advertising in the Derby Day Program, and an autographed photo of Street Sense, the 2007 Derby winner, for us to raffle off. Emerald Downs invited us to bring retired and retrained racehorses out on the track between races in a further effort to fundraise for and publicize our efforts. With repeated announcements throughout the day, they called for the fans to get involved, come meet us, and make donations. Melodee and Chez Chevaux volunteers set up and manned the table upstairs while Katie and her volunteers hauled in four retired, retrained and rehomed ex-racehorses to show off in a parade, both in hand and under saddle, before a packed grandstand. It was their first visit back to track since they retired. Regardless of what PETA and other categorical detractors of all racing might imagine, the alumni were happy to be back on the track.

Neither of us actually had time to watch the Derby live. The Chez Chevaux volunteers at the fundraising table watched the race while we hustled trackside to prep the horses to head out onto the track. The Kentucky Derby is the event of the year in American racing. Much of the general public only knows anything about racing on Derby Day. It is usually a joyous day. People dress up, drink a lot, and wear hats. But this year, the Mint Juleps went by the wayside when Eight Belles went down.

Everyone has a speculative opinion. We have our own too. We may agree jointly, and disagree individually on some points. But, both of us do know what we're talking about throughout multiple arenas of the equine performance world. And we do have some things to say: Eight Belles' injury was a tragic accident and her resultant trackside euthanasia, albeit necessary, was traumatic to see. Don't throw a blanket of comprehensive blame on the racing industry. Shortly prior to this years' Derby, two Rolex (Three-Day) eventing mounts, Frodo Baggins and The Quiet Man, were euthanized due to falls at fences in the cross-country phase of the competition. Teddy O’Connor also competed that day without injury, however, just recently he had to be euthanized due to injuries suffered in a freak barn accident. Horses have also broken legs and required euthanization thereby, from the proverbial "bad steps" taken while running barrels, cutting cows, and while bucking, running and playing at liberty in turnout pastures. Oh, and don't forget trailering accidents! No one who loves horses wants to see them die: EVER.

Re: The numerous calls and emails we've received both enquiring and complaining about racing:

(1) Racetracks in America may be dirt or polytrack. Tracks do strive to provide the best surfaces possible regardless. Surfaces are better installed and maintained than any others you are likely to find in amateur performance and pleasure arenas, and/or trails and endurance races. Racetrack footing is groomed and prepped before each race. If you're astride the twentieth horse with studded shoes to go over fences in a three-day event, you're on your own to find a take-off spot that isn't slop! Steeplechase racers and open-jumping stadium competitors may fly over water above fences that are constructed to yield to rider miscalculations and/or an errant equine leg, but they don't solicit immovable drop fences into it as does three day eventing.

(2) Be assured that the condition of the racing surface and the health of the equine competitors is of paramount concern to all connected and with aspirations to the Kentucky Derby.

(3) Jockeys really can, and must, ride well . Quickly, consistently, and in company. If they are hurt, at best, they lose their paychecks. Jockeys will not mount a horse if they feel it is not sound. They are consummate professionals who know their lives are at risk every time they are legged up onto a horse. Pleasure, amateur, and professional performance competitors who cannot ride well, and even those that can, may get hurt, and may indeed occasionally die, but more often than not they have the luxury of merely being sore and temporarily embarrassed.

(4) Risk is inherent in all equine endeavors and interactions as it is in life. All individual creatures on this planet will die. Some people die of "old age", some die doing what they love best, albeit "risky".

(5) Successful racing and performance horses do love their jobs and the people connected with them. A recent example is the Canadian racehorse, Topaz Legacy from Assiniboia Downs, who unseated his rider at the gate and ran the entire race using strategy, tactic and skill to win the race!

(6) We have rescued starving and abused horses from private citizens.We have never had to so do at a racetrack.

(7) Reality stories: Racing owners and trainers may easily invest myriad hours and more than 5 or 6 figures into a sound racing prospect before it becomes evident that the horse doesn't like the proposed job description. Those same connections have donated those horses to our organizations to be retrained for a second career. We must note that racing is the only sector of the equine sphere that has routinely donated such “expensive” horses to us for retraining while they were sound and marketable. They've also donated and asked us to help rehome other sound horses that they didn't feel were physically or mentally suited for the demands and skill sets of racing, and paid board and vet bills for them pending rehoming, whether stabled at our facilities or elsewhere in the interim.

(8) Fact: Many unwanted horses of all breeds do not get a happy retirement. See: The Unwanted Horse Coalition. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) reports that in excess of 100,000 horses are annually transported from the United States to Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered. These horses suffer miserable conditions enroute. Their deaths are unnecessarily violent beyond comprehension. The voices of those who target their criticisms of equine endeavors at racing might better direct their concerns for equine welfare to this ongoing situation.

(9) Some two year old thoroughbreds are physically and mentally ready to race. Others are not. Nor will they be at three or four. The same applies to any equines' potential entry into pleasure and performance careers. Ultrasounds and other available veterinary technologies, coupled with a capable trainers' lengthy experience and duly-earned hands-on instincts can be employed to make educated decisions utilizing the best empirical information available at any given moment.

(10) Race and performance horses can, and do, retire sound. Glo's Mo, a Second Chance Ranch retiree, began racing at two and retired sound at ten years old without injury.

(11) For those that believe all horses should run free in "nature": Begin by thoroughly educating yourselves with an investigation of the mustang herd management policies and practices of the Bureau of Land Management. When think you know it all and you've earned your Equine Doctorate ( do consider, a Doctorate in conventional education usually takes at least seven years, forty hours per week)...try an apprentice practicum with any equine professional and work sixteen hour days 24/7 , weather notwithstanding, for an additional year. Then write your thesis and GO ON to start your real equine world education by launching your own training barn or rescue.

(12) Or, go on to Veterinary College: Equine Veterinary Practitioners have completed four years of University (for a Bachelor of Arts /or Science Degree) and four years of Veterinary School. Surgical accreditation will take another three years. Veterinarians at Teaching University Hospitals and Racetracks are committed to their practices and lifelong learning. We have stood with, by, and held beloved equines when immediate humane euthanasia was the only answer. Vets do not want to euthanize a horse for whom any hope of recovery exists. Doing what had to be done expediently for Eight Belles, while compassionately providing her with every measure of dignity possible as the whole world watched, had to be both a profound personal misery and the ultimate test of triage and professionalism under fire.

In closing: Racing is neither cruel nor evil. No equine and human interaction is without inherent risk. Domesticated horses rely on their human connections to care for them. While there are a small number of less than caring humans in all equine arenas, one cannot fault an arena-at-large for the perceived actions of a negative minority. All evidence indicates that Eight Belles’ connections strove to do the best job they could for her at all times. The safety of all racing participants is paramount to the industry and the industry continually works to maximize policies that promote safe outcomes. See: The Washington Horse Council.

Most importantly please recognize that all of us, from every side of the table, are working toward the same goal; to protect and provide the best for horses. Second Chance Ranch and Chez Chevaux are dedicated and responsible nonprofit equine welfare organizations. You can help a race horse today by donating!