Eight Belles was the unfortunate talk of the nation after collapsing past the wire in the Kentucky Derby. But the ill-fated filly was not the only thoroughbred whose career took an abrupt and ugly turn on the first Saturday in May — she just happened to be the only one whose death was witnessed by millions of people.
There were 15 horses at 39 North American tracks who failed to finish a race the Saturday of the Kentucky Derby. Nine of them were reported to have been so injured or unsound that they had to be driven off the track in an equine ambulance. Although the official result charts published online by the Daily Racing Form do not provide any veterinary commentary beyond "broke down," "pulled up," or "went wrong," a gut feeling based on racetrack experience leads me to presume that some of those stricken animals met the same beyond-hope fate as Eight Belles, and required euthanasia.
I grew up around cheap racehorses on the old New England circuit, and I have always admired the grizzled veterans of the low-caste claiming levels for their underdog nobility. Maybe that's why I always feel a twinge of uneasiness when a high-profile horse accident gets tremendous play in the news media. Everyday racetrack tragedies are far more common, yet are routinely ignored. Obscure, hard-luck horses slip off the radar with little notice or fanfare, while even a minor injury to a major horse knocks the racing world off its axis.
If you're a true supporter of the sport, it should be irrelevant whether a horse who is injured or dies is worth $4-million or $400. Grief and outrage aren't doled out in relation to a horse's value or the class level at which it competes. Although recent headlines might indicate otherwise, the owner, the trainer, the jockey and the groom of Eight Belles aren't entitled to a deeper sadness or sense of loss than, say, the handlers of Hack Rein, an 0-for-7 maiden who "broke down in the upper stretch and was vanned off" in the third race at Evangeline Downs in Louisiana, barely an hour after the Kentucky Derby.
The list goes on: Sparkling Sherry was an 8-year-old mare who hadn't won a race since 2003 when she was abruptly pulled up at Indiana Downs on Saturday. Middle Earth was jerked to a halt by the jockey Alex Birzer in the stretch at Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma, and you have to wonder what was going through Alex's mind when he sensed something was amiss with his mount (his younger brother, Gary, was paralyzed in a West Virginia racing accident four years ago). At tiny Les Bois Park in Idaho, a 12-year-old gelding named Northern Land made it only to the half-mile pole in what may end up being his final race.
Unlike Eight Belles, whose tale will be told for decades to come, the only historical record of Northern Land's misstep will be a cryptic footnote, a dozen-year thoroughbred career distilled into a single line of agate type that reads nothing more than "trailed, pulled up ½."
T. D. Thornton is the author of Not by a Long Shot — A Season at a Hard-Luck Horse Track, which recently won the Castleton Lyons-Thoroughbred Times Award for best book of the year about horse racing.
Energy independence is not ... a baffling conundrum that defies human intelligence and creativity. Nor is it the futuristic dream of woolly-headed idealists. We don't need to wait for someone to invent the water-powered car or the eternal light bulb in order to see it come to pass. There are steps we can take right now that will begin to slow — and eventually reverse — the drain of dollars to the petro-vampires, foreign and domestic.
The result would be a stronger, safer and cleaner America that would, once again, be leading the rest of the world to a more promising future. (I know that's a controversial goal — call me a dreamer.)
But mobilized by nervous corporate interests, the Right has had a hysterical response to even the most modern proposal for true energy independence, including seriously raising mileage standards (Regulation!) and imposing a dollar-a-gallon "Patriot Tax" (Taxation!)
Though I don't consider myself an automotive fashionista, I must admit that as the turn of the 21st century neared, I followed the thundering herd of protective parents unable to resist the allure of what is basically a comfy Sherman tank. The SUV I dutifully acquired, a Lincoln Navigator, was, I was told, the safest way to transport my kids. And, as an added bonus, I could haul around my daughters' entire Girl Scout troop and all the cookies they could sell.
But it turned out that despite those TV ads showing them heroically scaling snow-capped mountains in a single bound, SUVs are actually risky to drive: four times more likely than cars to roll over in an accident and three times more likely to kill the occupants in a rollover. Honest advertising would have shown SUVs rolling down those snow-capped mountains after they had driven up.
Soon after 9/11, I swapped my SUV for a Prius, Toyota's category-busting sexy hybrid. (Or, at least, it became sexy after assorted movie stars started pulling up at the red carpet in them.) After waiting in vain for our leaders to lead, I joined thousands of other Americans and simply drove around them.
There is a broad spectrum of agreement across political lines that, at least in theory, it would be a good idea to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. But the problem is that it isn't possible to reduce foreign oil consumption without reducing all oil consumption. Oil is a commodity that is traded on an open market. There's no "foreign" or "domestic" button at the gas pump.
The simple, obvious and immediate solution to our foreign oil problem — and the collateral damage it does by propping up repressive regimes, funding terrorism and draining our national bank account — is to keep raising the fuel economy standards for all cars and trucks. Increasing these standards would buy us the time we need to develop true alternative energy solutions and bring them to market. These, by the way, are true "market solutions."
To the Right, this is crazy talk. ... Oh, and while Bush has been in the White House, our dependence on foreign oil has actually gone up from 57 percent in 2001 to 67 percent in 2008.