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Are horse deaths unavoidable?

Eight Belles heads to the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. Is the filly’s euthanization after the race any different from people dying in auto racing crashes or from boxing punches?

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Eight Belles heads to the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. Is the filly’s euthanization after the race any different from people dying in auto racing crashes or from boxing punches?

There won't be a dramatic fight for life this time around. No national day of mourning for a brave horse who wouldn't give up.

Schoolchildren won't be sending cards.

The people who cried for Eight Belles got it out of the way Saturday at the track. They had no choice, because the business of racing goes on.

She ran with the big boys in the race of her life. She ended up paying for it with her life.

One moment she was flying down the stretch at Churchill Downs racing against all odds to become the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby in 20 years. The next she was thrashing in the dirt, trying desperately to get up before the decision was made to spare both her and us any further misery.

Two years ago we were transfixed by the fight to save Barbaro, who became a national icon as he struggled to recover from injuries that eventually cost him his life. Two weeks from now they'll run the Preakness, and Eight Belles will barely get a mention.

Racing is a brutal business because it has to be. If we mourned every horse that lost its life early on the track or in the barn, we'd have no time left to cheer on those who can still run.

Barbaro was the exception, a horse and a story that allowed us to get all warm and fuzzy and forget for a time that these 1,000-pound beasts are bred and raised for maximum speed, not maximum life spans.

The cool efficiency that marked the end of Eight Belles was more the norm, a cruel reminder on the biggest of all stages that racing can be a deadly sport.

Say what you will about the sport of kings, but don't say they aren't prepared. They've done it enough to know the drill, and they performed it quickly enough so that the untimely demise of Eight Belles didn't interfere with Big Brown's victory ceremony or the hawking of tacos and fried chicken on national television.

The equine ambulance came out, and screens spared the crowd from watching. The track veterinarian reached for the needle that is always nearby.

The animal activists, of course, will raise an outcry over it all. They will call for a ban on the sport, and compare the fate of Eight Belles with that of the dogs Michael Vick and his cohorts euthanized in their own special ways.

Those in the industry will debate what it all means, a process that had already begun Sunday morning in the stables at the famed track. Trainers talked how horses are bred too fragile these days for the stress that running around a track at 45 mph with someone clinging to your back causes, and how synthetic tracks might or might not help save some of them.

Most came to the same conclusion: Breakdowns and deaths have always been and will always be a part of the sport.

"No matter what happens, you're always going to see horses break down on the track. That is part of this game. It's a very sad part of the game, but you have to go through it," Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. said. "For people coming out to the track and seeing that, it's got to make them think, 'Man, why would I want to go out there and see that happen to a horse?' It's got to be very disappointing to anyone who loves horses."

Fellow trainer Nick Zito was just as philosophical: "It was a very unfortunate thing, but again, in sports it happens a lot at high levels. People get hurt, people lose their careers."

People do, and sometimes they die, too. They are killed crashing cars into each other on the racetrack, or trading punches in the ring.

I've been at fights and watched it happen, and it's a horror show. But I've never seen anyone euthanized or put to sleep or laid down, or whatever euphemism you want to use for Eight Belles.

It may happen all the time in racing — indeed, three horses were killed in one day at the Breeders' Cup in 1990 — but when it happens on such a public stage for the second time in two years, it becomes increasingly hard to watch a race just for the thrill of it all.

The popularity of horse racing has been in a long decline, and having horses die in the dirt isn't exactly a recipe for bringing fans back to the track.

For now, though, the sport goes on. Eight Belles was a casualty, but unlike Barbaro she was disposed of quickly and now the focus of the sport will turn to the chances of Big Brown doing what hasn't been done in 30 years.

A lot of people in racing who watched Big Brown come from all the way outside to win the Derby think he could become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown.

A lot of others just hope that he finishes the Preakness and the Belmont still standing on all four legs.

Are horse deaths unavoidable? 05/04/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2008 9:14am]

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