The Kentucky Derby and the Slow Death of Horse Racing

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On the eve of the sport's biggest event, it needs more than a Triple Crown to survive.

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Canonera, with jockey Gustavo Avila, fly to victory in the 97th Kentucky Derby in Louisville in 1971 / AP Images

This dark and stormy Derby week, there is no other way to put it. These are dismal days for horse racing in North America. We once said, in the grandstands and along the backstretches, that all horse racing needed to reassert itself onto the American sporting scene was a Triple Crown winner. But the last 3-year-old colt to accomplish that task was Affirmed in 1978. And that means that a third of a century, an entire generation, has come and gone without such a champion. In the meantime, chaos. The great gaming monopoly that once was horse racing has devolved into a rudderless mess.

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All across the continent, from Ontario to Kentucky, from Maryland to California, the industry and the sport are under siege. From venal legislators, who have raided gaming coffers to cover their own budgetary failures. From the politically connected gaming industry, which sees horse racing as a mere nuisance. From underfunded and lazy regulators, who are more concerned about securing their own patronage than they are about enforcing the rules. And from cheating owners, trainers, jockeys, and drivers, who are laughing at the rest of us as they deposit their ill-gotten gains.

The problem is too few racing fans, bettors, owners, and investors in the sport. The problem is lax regulatory oversight. The problem is the lack of cohesive, central leadership. The problem is lack of lobbying power. The problem is poor marketing. The problem is that no one outside of horse racing remembers who won the Kentucky Derby five years ago. But everyone, everywhere, remembers the ill-fated Barbaro, the heroic colt, who surely (we'd all like to think) would have won the Triple Crown in 2006 had he not been gravely injured at the start of the Preakness Stakes.

But even Barbaro's Triple Crown win in 2006 would not likely have turned the tide. The problem, then and now, is bigger than any one race or any Triple Crown horse. It's a foundational problem and a personnel issue. The people who have led the industry to the brink of irrelevance are the same ones who say today that we should trust them to shape the sport's future. That's why the recent exposes in The New York Times, by Joe Drape, Walt Bogdanich, Rebecca R. Ruiz, and Griffin Palmer, are so powerful. It's not that anyone in horse racing is shocked by the revelations. It's that we've known the grim truth all this time.

QUARTER POLE: The Horses

On Saturday, the first Saturday in May, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, will host the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown. It ought to be an excellent race. There is no dominant, obvious favorite this year and you can make reasonable arguments for any one of a handful of colts who will be running. As is often the case, you also don't have to look too hard to find a sentimental choice, if you are so inclined, because the field is full of them.

For example, there is Union Rags, the pre-season favorite for the Derby until he ran poorly after a tough trip in the Florida Derby. Union Rags is trained by Barbaro's old trainer, Michael Matz, the mercurial horseman who seems like he could use some good karma for a change on the track. Then there is the fast colt Creative Cause, winner of the San Felipe Stakes, who represents his 71-year-old trainer Mike Harringon's first-ever Derby horse. And there is Bodemeister, trainer Bob Baffert's latest missive, named after Baffert's son, a colt who blew them away in the Arkansas Derby.

Want more? There's Gemologist, one of trainer Todd Pletcher's best, a colt who won the Wood Memorial and who has never been beaten. There's Hansen, a striking white colt whose owner got into a tussle with race officials in Kentucky because he wanted the horse's tail painted blue for a race. It didn't happen—God forbid horse racing should have an edgy marketing ploy—and Hansen was beaten by another Derby horse, named Dullahan, trained by Dale Romans, son of Jerry Romans, who never won a Derby himself.  

No matter who wins, every racing fan everywhere mostly prays that none of these beautiful animals (or any others) get hurt on Saturday. Remember Eight Belles? She was the filly who raced a brave second to Big Brown in the Derby in 2008 before breaking down on the track. I hosted a Derby party that year and there were maybe half a dozen children watching that race. They were rightly horrified by Eight Belles' on-track death and I daresay that none are likely to ever want to see a horse race ever again. That's why horse racing has to do much more to better protect the horses.

HALF-MILE POLE: The Drugs

That protection begins and ends with the vices and failings of the human connections who surround every racehorse. Although there is a healthy and continuous debate within racing about the efficacy of the drugs that are lawfully given to horses, the fact is that the pervasive use of such drugs (not to mention the illegal blood-doping ones) has had a devastating long-term impact upon the horses. We breed them for speed, we push them to race early, and then we have the nerve to pump them full of drugs to hide their ailments or to make them run faster. No wonder they break down: Here's the lede from the most recent Times piece:

As he trained for his first race, at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, the 3-year-old thoroughbred Wes Vegas galloped on the track most mornings and had two timed workouts. But his handlers also prepared him in another way: In the month before the race, records show, he received 10 intravenous injections of potent drugs for pain, one the day before he ran; two injections of a drug for joint disease; corticosteroid injections in his two front ankles; a sedative; and an ulcer drug. For all the preparation, that first race, on March 3, turned out to be his last. As he approached the first turn, Wes Vegas broke a leg and had to be euthanized.

There is no excuse for this, on any level. The owners are to blame for permitting their trainers and veterinarians to give drugs to their horses on such a scale. The trainers are to blame for putting their financial interest above the interests of their horses' welfare. The veterinarians are to blame for allowing themselves to be used as instruments of the horses' destruction. Track officials are to blame for not taking seriously their obligations to ensure the safety of the horses. And regulators are to blame for not punishing even the obvious offenders.

The reason all these people so often don't do right by their horses is because the horses are perceived as fungible property rather than as the irreplaceable centerpieces of the sport. Insiders lament the breakdowns but perceive them to be exceptions to the rule. The problem is, the public doesn't see it that way. To the lay person, each and every breakdown is proof that racing is a brutal and violent sport and, just as importantly, that the humans in charge of it aren't doing enough to protect the horses. The cumulative effect of that perception has severely damaged the sport's reputation and the industry's ability to attract new fans.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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