It’s Derby weekend! Excitement fills the air – at least for those who are either blissfully ignorant or willfully blind to the cruel facts of the racing industry. Many of the exquisite creatures that run on Derby day – even the winner, perhaps – may meet their end in an overseas slaughterhouse or an illegal slaughter farm in the United States. They will die in conditions considered inhumanely cruel for animals less sensitive and/or intelligent than horses.
A horse fancier from a young age, I grew up reading “The Black Stallion,” “Misty of Chincoteague,” “National Velvet,” and other horse stories. I read biographical works about great racehorses and the three foundation sires of the modern Thoroughbred – The Darley Arabian, The Godolphin Arabian, and The Byerly Turk. But until a few years ago, I was ignorant of how the lives of most of these magnificent animals ended. I naively assumed that after earning millions of dollars for their owners by racing and breeding, these horses spent their old age in peaceful retirement, relaxing on green pastures. Needless to say, I was beyond horrified to learn of the macabre circumstances of their demise in an abattoir. Once they are no longer considered an asset, these horses are disposed of by owners who simply do not want the responsibility of feeding and caring for a 1200 pound animal that can live twenty years or more after their racing career is over.
As of 2008, approximately 80,000 horses per year are shipped overseas from the United States for slaughter. An estimated 10% of these horses are former racers.
This gorgeous creature is Exceller. Winning many major races in the United States and Europe, the lovely bay stallion is the only horse to ever defeat two United States Triple Crown winners in one race. Born in 1973, Exceller’s earnings came to 1.64 million dollars. In 1980, he was retired to stud, and in 1986, he stood for a $50,000 stud fee. In 1991, he was sold and shipped to a European breeder. When his owner went bankrupt in 1997, Exceller was sent to a horrible death in an abattoir.
Ferdinand, pictured above, won the 1986 Kentucky Derby. He entered stud in 1989. His earnings in the United States exceeded 3 million dollars. In 1994 he was surreptitiously sold to a breeding farm in Japan, where he was eventually sent to a slaughterhouse in 2002.
Other racehorses don’t even make it to retirement or the abattoir. Severe injuries acquired while racing are often irreparable and end with the horse being euthanized. Perhaps they’re the “lucky” ones. Sad as it is, euthanasia is far kinder than a gruesome death at the slaughterhouse.
This beauty is Ruffian. Born in 1972, she was a huge filly who won her maiden race in record time and went on to make, break, or equal records in following races – winning all of them. She won the 1975 Triple Tiara with ease, earning the nickname “Queen of the Fillies.”
Ruffian’s eleventh and final race was a match race between the “Queen” and that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure. This “Boy versus Girl” event was publicized to a television audience of over 20 million. Ruffian quickly passed her opponent, but in a tragic turn of events, she broke both sesamoid bones in her right front leg. Determined to keep running, she inflicted terrible damage on her leg, shattering the bones and rendering the tendons useless. Her jockey managed to pull her up and her opponent crossed the finish line alone.
After anesthetizing her, a team of veterinary doctors performed surgery on the delicate leg joint. They designed a special brace to be used with the cast to help hold her weight after the surgery. But it was all for naught. Upon coming out of the anesthesia, the disoriented filly began to struggle and kick in an effort to free her injured leg from the unfamiliar weight of the cast and brace. In minutes, she had destroyed the cast and her leg. There was no alternative except to put her down. She was only 3 years old.
Barbaro, born in 2003, suffered a similar tragic fate. The 2006 Kentucky Derby winner went on to the Preakness Stakes, where he shattered his right hind fetlock and ended his racing career. He received surgical treatment for the injury, but a few months later developed laminitis in his other three legs. He was euthanized in 2007.
But that isn’t all. Countless unwanted newborn foals are killed every year so that their mothers can be nurse mares to other, more valuable foals, whose own mothers are shipped off to be bred again shortly after giving birth. These helpless babies are often clubbed to death, their pelts used to make Cordovan leather.
Due to demands for faster racehorses and careless breeding, most modern racehorses are much more delicate than their forebears. Many are on more drugs than Whitney Houston, supposedly to improve performance. At the root of all this cruelty? Greed. It is truly staggering to consider what humans will stoop to for the almighty dollar.
So this weekend, as the horses run with no guarantee that they will receive even a fraction of the care they deserve, consider those that have died for a vain sport and what you would or wouldn’t do for money.