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The Questions That Remain

After a simply awful and terrible ending to Kentucky Derby 134 my thoughts and feelings were and are extremely conflicted. I enjoy the sport of horse racing very much but I cannot continue to watch races where these beautiful animals break down and die.

Following the Derby, the reaction from the racing industry was the same as it has been in the past: these things, while tragic and horrible, are an unfortunate part of the game, and are the result of bad luck more so than preventable human actions. While the industry's stance may be somewhat factually correct, it is neither a sufficient nor is it an acceptable position.

There aren't any quick fix solutions to prevent injuries to race horses, with the exception of the complete ban of the sport all together. Injuries have occurred in the past and they will occur in the future. However, there is a difference between a horse being injured and one suffering a fatal, catastrophic break down. Injuries may be part of the game, but fatal accidents such as the ones suffered by Barbaro, George Washington and Eight Belles, can only be looked at as unacceptable events that need to be addressed by the entire racing industry.

A tragedy such as the one at the Derby causes a lot of people to scream for answers and to fling accusations at anyone and everyone. The charges range from 'the jockey whipped too much', 'fillies shouldn't run against the boys', 'dirt surfaces should be replaced with synthetics', or 'horses are pushed too fast and too far, too early in their career.' While a lot of these "causes" sound catchy on SportsCenter or talk radio, they are neither the cause nor the solution to this problem. And while I sympathize with those that are outraged at what took place in Louisville, I sometimes wonder if they seek to bring about real change or just want to scream as loudly as possible so that a TV camera will be pointed in their direction?

The use of the whip, in this instance, was likely not the cause of Eight Belles break down. Nor was it the reason that Barbaro and George Washington broke down. Nor is it the problem in the overwhelming majority of racing accidents. And while whip rules ought to be revised and be more aligned with the rules in Europe and Asia, it is really nothing more than a "hot-button" issue to latch onto.

In Europe, fillies run against the colts many, many times throughout the year. In fact, it's so common to see a filly with the colts that it is rarely even pointed out in pre-race commentary and analysis. Similar to the accusations against the whip, blaming this tragedy on the fact that it was a filly against the colts is simply a cosmetic argument.

The issue of dirt tracks and the amount of racing thoat horses do early in their career are legitimate concerns but should really be looked at in a historical context. Horse races much less now than they did 20 or 30 years ago. In fact, horses race less than half as much as they did in decades past. Horses are not being over raced, just the opposite, the are significantly under raced when compared with the past. Similarly, dirt surfaces have been a staple of American racing for well over a hundred years. Injuries aren't occurring simply because horses are running over dirt, they are occurring because of a far greater problem: an overall weakness of the breed.

In my opinion, the obvious changes need in order to bring about tangible improvements within the sport are two-fold: elimination of race day medications, and a complete over-haul of the breeding industry. These actions would take years to bring about meaningful change, but are the best tools to increase the stability and strength of the breed. Breeding horses purely for speed, and breeding horses with known genetic defects, has created what we see today: horses that are lightly raced and extremely fragile. Additionally, allowing horses to race on medication allows animals that should not be racing to compete anyway. If a horse doesn't possess the athletic ability to compete without medication then it shouldn't be racing at all. And even more to the point, the horses that can't race without medication should not be allowed in any way, to breed and pass on their genetic defects on to other thoroughbreds.

Europe and Asia have extremely rigid and tough medication and breeding regulations. The American horse racing industry needs to use these regulations as a baseline and then needs to go above and beyond in order to ensure improved soundness.

As an indirectly related side-note, any trainer or owner whose horses are found to have raced on medications or drugs of any kind should be banned from the sport for life. Eliminate the six month slap on the wrist that we see today and expunge these individuals from the sport. Ironically, if the American industry were to have such a rule, the winning trainer of this year's Derby would have been banned years ago.

Racing talks a lot about bringing in new fans to the game but the fact of the matter is that people are not going to become involved in a sport where terrible accidents like this occur. Many people watching this year's Derby will probably never watch a horse race again...and I can't blame them one bit. The racing industry can't just shake it's head and say "what a sad day" and move along as if nothing happened.

The conclusion of this year's Derby caused me to turn off the TV and question whether I would ever watch another race again. I probably will...but it won't be today, tomorrow, or any day that I can predict.