Frantz: Death of another horse raising more questions

With all due apologies to Ernest Hemingway and John Donne: “Ask not for whom Eight Belles toiled; she toiled for greed.”

Not her own, of course, but for the greed of the wealthy and elitist aristocrats who make up the “Sport of Kings,” which has deteriorated through the centuries into little more than officially sanctioned animal abuse for the entertainment and profit of humans.

No card-carrying PETA member am I, but the horrific death of the beautiful filly Eight Belles immediately following Saturday’s Kentucky Derby should once again raise questions about the abusive nature of the horse racing industry. And to date, the answers so often provided by the racing establishment have been woefully lacking in substance.

When the sport was so infamously jolted at the Preakness two years ago by the gruesome shattering of the right hind leg of Barbaro, the 2006 Derby winner, the owners, trainers and handlers of Barbaro and other horses assured us that the animals “love to run” and that they were never pushed beyond their own natural limits desire to compete. Saturday, after Eight Belles was put down (the horse racing term for mercy-killing a suffering horse) after breaking the ankles of both front legs, we heard more of the same:

“These things are our family, you know,” Eight Belles’ trainer, Larry Jones, said. “We put everything into it that we have and they’ve given us everything that they have. They put their life on the damn line, uh, and she was glad to do it!”

That last line bears repeating: “They put their life on the damn line … and she was glad to do it.”

Now I don’t know a whole lot about the art of “horse whispering,” but unless it actually involves a filly such as Eight Belles speaking softly into the ear of her trainer, telling him how much she wants to be raced to brink of her own physical limitations, and beyond, then I’d sure like to know how Mr. Jones can so emphatically declare that she was “glad to do it.” And if horses love to run as much as these owners and trainers would have us believe, and if they are as “glad” to put their own lives on the line in the interest of winning a race (a concept they can’t possibly comprehend), then why on earth does the guy on its back have to incessantly beat it with a whip to make it go faster?

Seems to me that any animal that is beaten about the hind-quarters with a whip would run as fast as it could whether it wanted to or not. And they won’t necessarily be glad to do it.

The terrible injuries suffered by these glorious animals are becoming far too common. Beyond the high-profile injuries and subsequent deaths, suffered by Eight Belles and Barbaro in Triple Crown races, there are literally hundreds of career-ending, if not life-ending, injuries to horses across the United States each year. USA Today reports 55 equine deaths at one track alone, Del Mar, near San Diego, between 2004 and 2006, and the Washington Post reports 1.5 career ending breakdowns per 1,000 racing starts — or two everyday.

I would not be so presumptive as to suggest an outright ban on the sport, but I would hope that even the most involved horse racing fan would agree that some serious questions need to be answered. Exactly how many horses, racing with massive, oversized, muscular bodies on cocktail-straw legs, have to suffer agonizing, lethal injuries before someone realizes something has to change?

Eight Belles, along with countless other animals forced to perform for our amusement, deserves an answer.

Sports personality Bob Frantz is a regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at bfrantz@examiner.com.

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