The Death of Eight Belles: How to Stop the Carnage?

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Thoroughbred racehorse filly, Eight Belles,
who finished second in today's Kentucky Derby, and then was killed moments later.

This morning, the book, My Guy, Barbaro: A Jockey's Journey Through Love, Triumph, and Heartbreak with America's Favorite Horse co-written by Barbaro's jockey Edgar Prado and John Eisenberg, was presciently announced on National Public Radio. They were interviewing Barbaro's jockey as part of their show about today's upcoming 134th running of the Kentucky Derby, American's most famous horse race. Little did the NPR commentators know, but they were casually talking about the last few hours that another noble horse would have on this planet.

Little did they know, but this evening, the grey filly, Eight Belles, would finish second in this race but then, a few strides after crossing the finish line, she would unceremoniously collapse into the soil of Churchill Downs, attempt to right herself, and go down again for the last time. A few moments after that, she would be diagnosed with condylar fractures of both front legs, a dislocated left ankle and an additional sesamoid fracture of the right front. She would be killed moments later by the track veterinarian in front of tens of thousands of horrified spectators, and millions of television viewers. At least a few of these people will never again attend a horse race.

The filly, Eight Belles, moments after finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

Many of you know that I took care of racehorses when I was younger, and that I struggle with a powerful love-hate relationship with horse racing. On one hand, having worked with these horses, I am keenly aware of their competitive spirits and their strong desire to run -- fast. But on the other hand, I have watched excellent horses "break down" on the track followed by being "humanely destroyed" either on the race track or later, back in the barn, and it has upset me terribly every time. In fact, I have not attended a horse race for many years.

What can be done to stop this unnecessary carnage? There are several factors that contribute to racehorse injuries and deaths: the youth and immaturity of American horses when they are raced; the pressure to race horses when they are not fully healthy; and intensive breeding for speed rather than soundness. But probably the biggest single influence over a racehorse's long-term health is the surface that they run on. For example, in the United States, racehorses are run on two types of surfaces; dirt or grass (turf). In general, a race run over a hard dirt surface produces faster race times than those run over a hard grass surface, which excites racing fans who love to see speed records being made. Thus, dirt is the typical racing surface in the United States, whereas European racehorses generally run on turf.

But why do dirt surfaces result in faster running times? Comparing dirt and grass racing surfaces reveals that horses slide more when running over dirt surfaces because after the hoof strikes the ground, it skids through the loose dirt that sits on top of the hard smooth surface underneath. As you might expect, sliding places severe stress on the ligaments, muscles and bones in horses' feet and legs, frequently causing pain, injuries, permanent unsoundness and even death. In contrast, when a horse runs on turf, sliding stops when the hoof comes into contact with grass roots, resulting in less strain on the ligaments and other support structures. Oh, yes, and slower racing times.

But a few trainers have been working on developing a synthetic racing surface that can produce fast times and fewer injuries for horses. For example, one such artificial surface, called Polytrack, was recently installed at one of America's premier racetracks; Keeneland, which is just down the road from Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky.

Polytrack was developed in England in the late 1980s by Martin Collins, who rode and trained jumpers for horse shows. He became interested in decreasing the injuries suffered by horses by improving the surfaces that they perform on, so he developed a synthetic surface, Polytrack. Polytrack is a cushion consisting of 90% silica sand mixed with recycled rubber and polypropylene fibers, wrapped in a petroleum-based wax coating that sits on top of a drainage system. This synthetic surface allows for less stress on the joints, muscles and bones of thousand-pound racehorses carrying a 110-pound human at speeds of 40 miles per hour. As of 2008, Polytrack has been installed on ten racetracks in the United States, England and Ireland.

Two other synthetic racetrack surfaces have also been developed recently; Tapeta Footings, developed by trainer, Michael W. Dickinson, and Cushion Track, developed by a group in the United Kingdom. All of these synthetic surfaces are resilient enough that they often are described as "riding on a cloud."

But synthetic racetrack surfaces are not the cure-all that everyone wishes they could be. It is well known that most synthetic surfaces tend not to tolerate extreme cold. When it is very cold, the track surface materials ball up inside the concave hooves of horses thereby causing their feet to strike the ground unevenly, resulting in injuries and fractures when they are running at speed.

Additionally, artificial surfaces are not appreciated by everyone. Horse racing fans complain that they cushion the horses' hooves so they cannot hear them thundering past the grandstands and down the homestretch. Additionally, synthetic surfaces eliminate track biases for horses with particular running styles, such as those that prefer to run in the mud and particularly those that begin a race with an early burst of speed. Because of this lack of racing bias, gamblers and hard-core horse players complain because "handicapping the ponies" loses most of its subtleties, and thus, racing becomes too predictable and betting payoffs shrink accordingly.

But those people who actually care about the health and welfare of their horses generally approve of synthetic surfaces. Early results from Keeneland, where Polytrack was installed in time for the 2005 racing season, were good: Polytrack reduced racing injuries of all types, and they only suffered three catastrophic breakdowns during the same period of time when they previously had 16 on their old dirt surface. Additionally, the trainers at Keeneland report their veterinary bills have been cut in half.

But unfortunately, not all data agree with Keeneland's early success. For example, a March 2008 BloodHorse article reports that injury and fatality data collected from 42 (out of 90 total) American racetracks did not show any statistically significant improvements: synthetic surfaces had nearly identical injury and fatality rates to those on dirt tracks (1.95 compared to 1.96 per thousand starts).

Oddly, data released by The Jockey Club in early April 2008 shows a drastic difference from the earlier published BloodHorse report. The Jockey Club's numbers show 2.02 fatalities per 1,000 starts on dirt surfaces compared to 1.47 starts on synthetic surfaces. But The Jockey Club's numbers are drawn from 35 racetracks instead of 42, and many of those tracks' data were collected from less than one year of racing. (I wonder if new racing surfaces of any type have a protective effect?)

So at this point, it is blatantly obvious that something must be done to reduce the tragic loss of American racehorses such as Barbaro and Eight Belles. If the racing industry doesn't take a stronger stand to protect the health and welfare of its equine athletes, other agencies and organizations will. Further, outside organizations will likely pressure the industry to stop racing horses altogether. And a public who has repeatedly watched its equine heroes needlessly die horrible deaths in front of their eyes will stand on the sidelines, cheering, just as they cheered for the gallant horses racing down the homestretch.

Hoofprint in a synthetic racing surface known as Polytrack.

Image: Bill Straus.


A horse-racing change? [Herald Tribune]

Review: Racetrack Fatality Ratio Changes [Bloodhorse]


Tapeta Footings.

Cushion Track Footings.

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of course one obvious solution is to, um, not breed and race horses..too simple?

By bikemonkey (not verified) on 03 May 2008 #permalink

Michael Dickinson is British too. It's curious that the developments have been happening on this side of the Atlantic - is that just a cultural thing? Its' good to hear that someone is working for the welfare of the horses.

One of the tracks where a synthetic surface has been installed is called Turfway. Oh, the irony.

bikemonkey .. simple, but unlikely. especially since the wall street investors now have created horse hedge funds.

Michael Dickinson is British too. It's curious that the developments have been happening on this side of the Atlantic - is that just a cultural thing?

And then there's the Grand National course at Aintree, where several horses die instantly when their necks are broken, or have to be euthanized in front of hundreds of spectators, every year. The jumps don't become any less challenging or dangerous as a result.

Changing the track surface only solves part of the problem-the most publicly visible one, of course-with US Thoroughbred horseracing. Most of the unsuccessful racehorses go to the "killers"; the luckier ones, with decent temperaments (once they come down off the drugs), might be picked up for amateur polo or pleasure riding. Even so, since Thoroughbreds are selected for speed and stamina, the breed is rife with serious conformation flaws and physiological problems. My horses all came off the track, and all three have conformation flaws that make them unsuitable for even marginally competitive dressage, hunter-jumper, show-jumping, and eventing. Friends of mine who breed and train warmbloods of various types, for dressage and eventing, are appalled at the structural flaws and lack of bone in the legs of most Thoroughbreds.

Waiting till they're grown up would help. Three-year-old horses have legs which are not fully developed. Two-year-olds' are even less so. Of course, the sport is money-driven and holding off another two years to race a horse isn't cost-effective. We don't see many "Belmont horses" these days.

Of course horse racing isn't about the horses at all, just the money from betting. Too bad for the horses. Too bad for society.

I also have to add that I don't feel the surface is the greatest factor contributing to long term soundness:
-horses raced prior maturity
-the type of training
-drugs and feed

I own a retired thoroughbred who just turned 20, and I have had him for 5 years. He is ridden by my daughter who jumps
2'6" or 3'0". When I finally took the chain off my wallet and paid 35 dollars to get his history I learned he had been to the post 100 times, racing until he was 10. I was surprised that he had no physical issues and was such a lovable guy.

I worry all the time about the biggest horse in a race, especially the 3 year olds. There is too much torque on the joints, and their natural stride is slower than the horses with shorter legs (but longer).

I don't have an answer. I don't attend races, only shows where the horses are much more able than their young riders and therefore safer.

I've posted a (very unscientific) informal photo survey of Thoroughbred and warmblood horse forelegs on my blog, using two of my horses, and three of my friends' horses, as examples. I've focused on the cannon bone, or third metacarpal-the condylar process of which was fractured in at least one of Eight Belles's front legs.

As I mention in the post, my mare has a birth defect that affects her performance in some equestrian disciplines, and very occasionally affects her soundness. I'll bet that Science Blogger Coturnix can identify the defect from the photo!

Feeding regimes alone, if publicised, would qualify the racing fraternity (so named because they're like brothers everywhere: full of rivalry and ready to murder each other) for every bad mark in the welfare list.
Most horses in training have inflamed guts. And not a few have worse ulceration.
The blithe overuse of anti-inflammatory medication during training just helps to keep them on a roller-coaster of periods of freedom from pain punctuated by times between meds of almost unbearable gut and skeletal pain.
Running flat out is a horses reaction both to fear and joy.
I couldn't be confident that many in a race these days are running for fun.

Getting humanely killed could easily be seen as a release for a racer; it's a tribute to the generosity of the horse temperament that most are prepared to put up with such management in return for a small amount of social interaction and a month each year on kind grass.

I wasn't at the track. I'm not a vet. But my sister is a vet and my cousin raised and trained horses professionally for decades and I know that condylar fractures are treatable. Many times they have no long-term effect on the soundness of the horse. So when I read she was put down I was kind of shocked. Either they were far worse than what I could find reported or the insurance money was part of the process.

"But probably the biggest single influence over a racehorse's long-term health is the surface that they run on."

I disagree. I would say it's genetics-- these horses are bred only for speed and not health.

"On one hand, having worked with these horses, I am keenly aware of their competitive spirits and their strong desire to run -- fast."

Again, that's because they're genetically bred to be fast with no other consideration (besides possibly competitiveness, which goes hand in hand with racing). It's a tragedy. Anyone who loves horses must get sick by watching this stuff.

Ugh! It could be argued that bullfighting is, in some ways, more humane. If nothing else, it has at least the virtue of honesty. Amazing that we can breed animals for heart and spirit then shame ourselves with those same animals.

Definitely running no more two-year-olds would help. But the horses have been bred for speed and that means they have delicate bones. The less mass in the feet, the easier it is to move them. Possibly we could have a bone-density standard, similar to the fuel limitations on race-cars.

Synthetic track surfaces are proving to be a different issue for horses--namely, the fibers are apparently inhaled and cause bleeding in the lungs. Sometimes what appears to be a improvement really isn't one. The primary factor for racehorse soundness is probably breeding for speed rather than soundness--horses forty years ago went to the post far more often than today's runners yet stayed sound. Today a fast horse that breaks down just goes to stud that much more quickly.

Re: Eight Belles--having dislocated her ankle as well as injuring the other leg severely, she had no forelegs to stand on--like Barbaro, she would have foundered if they had tried to save her--foundering is very, very painful for the horse. Trying to keep her alive with that level of injury would not have done her any favors. Keeping an animal alive because we think its better than death is not always for the best when the animal has only suffering in its future.