NB: you really want to read this entry first. It’s OK; we’ll wait until you get back.
Pat Forde at ESPN weighs in on why people who would not consider themselves racing fans or horse fanatics care what happens to Barbaro. He ascribes some of the outpouring of emotion to guilt for what we ask these animals to do for our entertainment and our wallets, not to mention the tastes of “drama-addicted America”. (Too true–the Olympics on NBC are absolutely unwatchable because of the broadcasters’ determination to wring mawkish drama out of every situation, and many viewers in the northern US prefer to watch the Canadian feeds.)
He continues: Bonds’ hitting 714 was inevitable. Barbaro’s breaking his leg certainly was not. It was a wholly unpredictable outcome — especially to casual fans who don’t know the grisly statistics on how common thoroughbred breakdowns really are.
And while it is easy to cheer against Bonds and other athletic churls, cheaters and chokers, race horses are — like most domesticated animals — almost universally laudable creatures. They try hard, do not complain and do not get in much off-the-track trouble. They’re pure.
And they are absolutely beautiful, at rest and especially in motion.
Which is, again, in stark contrast to Bonds.
As for those statistics Forde mentions, Laura Hillebrand, author of Seabiscuit, weighs in:
We speak of catastrophic breakdowns as if they are blue-moon anomalies. They are anything but. The most comprehensive investigation of breakdowns, the Equine Racing Injury Reporting System, found a rate of 1.6 fatalities in every 1,000 starts. Other studies have found almost identical results.
By this measure, every horse has a one in 624 chance of dying in each race. If that statistic held true for the 469,644 individual performances in the United States and Canada last year, 753 horses died in races in 2005. That’s more than two per day. Untold more died in training; while there is scant information on training deaths in America, horses in a Japanese study suffered more fractures in training than in racing. The fate of jockeys follows. Virtually every year, at least one jockey is killed as a result of a horse’s breakdown. Others are paralyzed or severely injured.
A comparison to the National Football League puts this death rate into perspective. Every week, each of 32 teams fields between 40 and 47 players; at minimum, 1,280 players produce 20,480 performances per 16-game regular season. Even if every team fielded only the minimum number of men, if football players died at the same rate as racehorses, 33 players — more than two per week — would die in the regular season alone. That the NFL would tolerate such a thing is inconceivable, yet racing does just that.
Go For Wand snapped a foreleg in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup; she was immediately wrestled to the ground and euthanized. Let us not forget Ruffian, Holy Bull, Charismatic…
Melissa Isaacson at the Chicago Tribune echoes Forde’s sentiments:Whether it is the basic human reaction to seeing an animal suffering or a deeper response stirred in anyone who has ever watched a beautiful thoroughbred in action, there is a romanticism associated with the racehorse that exists with no others.
And so it was that from those in the industry to the casual fan to people who simply heard on the news or read in the newspaper of Barbaro’s plight, that the horse’s traumatic injury has touched so many.
[...]But it is more than physiology that makes a champion racehorse like Barbaro so deserving of our admiration, and the sight of jockey Edgar Prado pulling back on the still-eager 3-year-old colt was testimony to that. Prado further shielded Barbaro while still on the track so that he would not see the other horses racing down the homestretch.
“Unfortunately, one of the qualities that makes us love horses so much is their undoing,” Rosenberg said. “When I’m tired, I sit down. But it’s in a horse’s nature to give all they have and more. I’ve heard it said that a horse has no choice and a human athlete does. But a horse does have a choice. You can’t make a horse do anything it doesn’t want to do, and a horse not so fiercely competitive as Barbaro would not keep trying to compete.”
Finally, there is Linda Greenhouse’s excellent article in the New York Times:
FEW scenes in sports could ever be more poignant than the image of the racehorse Barbaro holding his hind leg awkwardly in the air as the people on whom his life now depended clustered around him. A human athlete with an equivalently catastrophic injury would have been writhing in pain or cursing fate. But Barbaro stood stock still, his face registering nothing that could be interpreted as emotion. He felt pain, clearly, but only the people around him sensed doom.
The huge audience that had tuned in the Preakness Stakes expecting to toast a once-in-a-generation champion remained gripped all week by the story of Barbaro’s injury, surgery and outlook for recovery. In sports, human disasters seldom hold our attention for so long or so strongly.
Athletes ski into trees, are swept away by rogue waves or suffer career-ending injuries on the playing field, and we shake our heads in sympathy and move on to the next contest. The undiminished fascination with the fate of a 3-year-old colt, even among people who have never been near a racetrack, does at least raise the question of whether the public cares more for horses than for humans.
The answer is that we care about horses in a different way. Human athletes choose to put themselves in danger. Even in sports where risk-taking is not a central element, people choose their own path. When a weekend warrior suffers a heart attack on the tennis court, it is not uncommon to hear the cliché: “At least he died doing what he loved to do.”
We have no idea whether thoroughbred horses love to race. We like to think they do, and maybe, on a glorious spring day in Triple Crown season, a 40-mile-an-hour run around a dirt oval under a jockey’s whip in front of a cheering crowd really does feel wonderful to an animal that has, after all, been bred and trained for just such an activity.
But we don’t know, and it is hard to sustain an illusion of joy for anyone who has sat in a nearly deserted grandstand on a dreary afternoon, watching horses cross the finish line covered with mud from a sloppy track. And do even champions really love being loaded into vans or onto airplanes for a trip to a distant racetrack when the reward, for them, is little more than a blanket of roses?
I have been a racing fan for years, and my point is not that horse racing is cruel or morally ambiguous. I will let others make that argument, as many have in the past week. Yes, we feel a special obligation to these fragile, beautiful creatures whom we place in harm’s way for our own sporting pleasure. And yes, when their perfection is marred, we shudder as we would at the destruction of a work of art. But I think the sense of obligation runs at a deeper, even subliminal level. We are responsible for racehorses because we in a very real sense created them.
Today’s thoroughbreds are a result of more than 300 years of selective breeding that has carried them very far from their roots on the steppes and deserts of the Middle East. Every thoroughbred is descended from one of three stallions, the Darley Arabian, Godolphin, and the Byerly Turk, brought to England toward the close of the 17th century and bred to mares initially under the patronage of King Charles II. A great-great-grandson of the Darley Arabian, bred by a son of King George II, was born during a solar eclipse in 1764 and named Eclipse. An undefeated champion on the track, he sired 344 winners, and his powerful bloodline literally eclipsed all others. In fact, 95 percent of the thoroughbreds alive today are his descendants.
During the ensuing centuries, theories about the best strategies for fulfilling the injunction to “breed the best to the best” have come and gone, but almost nothing has been left to chance. Barbaro’s sire, Dynaformer, stands for a stud fee of $100,000. Human intervention has been so pervasive that on some level these are scarcely horses any longer but centaurs, part equine and part human, their lives so intermingled with ours that there is no separating the two.
Or to evoke another mythical creature: facing months of confinement and recuperation in a padded 12-by-12-foot stall, Barbaro is the “unicorn in captivity” of the medieval tapestry, fenced-in, bleeding from his wounds, the chase at an end.
Even casual horseplayers know the experience of urging a struggling horse down the stretch, as if this object of a $2 bet or a selection in the daily double carried their own fate on its back. But the image is backward. It is the horse’s fate that is at stake, now as ever in our hands.
As I wrote in an earlier post, humans have a tendency to breed for their own needs, not those of the animal, and without regard for the valuable legacy of the gene pool. This is particularly noticeable in dogs. According to a friend of mine who bred Shetland sheepdogs for many years, the herding instinct is gradually becoming lost as breeders churn out puppies for the pet market, focusing on narrower heads, or wild coat colours, or simply creating puppies for profit without regard for health or conformation. Many Border Collie and Jack Russell people were against gaining AKC recognition, fearing that breeding for the show ring would dilute the herding and hunting instincts of the dogs. I have also noticed a lot of tall, skinny black Labs who look nothing like the “square” breed standard (and who usually have high-strung, yappy, irritating temperaments to boot). In a sense, the blame for the breakdowns can be laid at the feet of the punters: everyone who wanted to risk a couple of bucks on a horse race, and thus creating an economic demand on the industry to start horses young so they can be running–and bet on–in their young and fragile years.
So what is to be done? I really wish I knew. I can only hope that the high profile of Barbaro and his very public injury will awaken a real desire to start thinking about long-term soundness and health over short-term gain. There is talk of a new synthetic racetrack surface which may reduce trauma to young legs and joints. Perhaps in future the horrifying spectacle of injured horses will seem as quaint and distant as the suffering of Victorian drayhorses.