Do Horse Racing Deaths Detract from the Kentucky Derby?

5 years ago

The Kentucky Derby marks the first leg of the annual Triple Crown. Each year, on the first Saturday of May, the Churchill Downs race track plays host to the top three-year-old thoroughbreds, along with ladies in wacky hats and boozy bourbon-based concoctions.

I'm no expert in horse racing, although I do spend time in Saratoga every year and love the equine traditions. Like most spectators, I'm drawn to the romance and tradition of horse racing, but I think it's important to also be clear-eyed about the drawbacks of the sport.

Credit Image: © Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire/Eclipse/ZUMAPRESS.com

Given the death toll in recent years, it's surprising that women play such a dominant role in the popularity of the race.  About 14.5 million people watched the 2011 race and 51 percent of them were women. The race is "the only annual sporting event that draws more female than male viewers," NBC Sports reported last year. (I think the network says the same thing about the Olympics).

Women at the Kentucky Derby: While lots of women love to make a fashion statement by dressing up in elegant hats and pastel linens at the Kentucky Derby, women have also played an active role in Derby history since the turn of the century. According the Derby website, in 1904, Mrs. Laska Durnell nominated Elwood to the Kentucky Derby, unbeknownst to her husband, trainer Charles Durnell. The decision was a shrewd one and Elwood became the first winner owned by a woman.

By the 1940s, women owners in the Derby were almost commonplace. In 1942, seven of the first eight finishers in the Kentucky Derby were owned by women. Besides the role of owner, a total of 14 women trainers have sent starters postward, most recently Kathy Ritvo and Kathleen O'Connell in 2011. To date, six women have ridden in the famed "Run for the Roses": Diane Crump, Patti Cooksey, Andrea Seefeldt, Julie Krone, Rosemary Homeister and Rose Napravnik. In 2012, Napravnik is riding Believe You Can in the Kentucky Oaks this weekend- as the only female jockey in the race.

Hat-i-tude: Tradition dictates that hats - usually of the very large and fancy variety - are worn on Derby Day. The spectacular fashion seen at the Derby is not solely a product of modern times however. The opulent dress has long played a role in the history of the Derby. What Colonel M. Lewis Clark Jr., (the founding father of the Kentucky Derby), envisioned was a racing environment that would feel comfortable and luxurious, an event that would remind people of European horse racing. Today, the Kentucky Derby is a chance for every female to express her inner Southern Belle.

The Dark Side: While the Kentucky Derby may be a fun excuse to get dressed up or throw a party, it's clear that horse racing is not all fun and games.  For years, detractors have been complaining  about how inhumane horse racing can be. A prime-time show about called Luck aired this season, depicting the behind-the-scenes world at a race track, but HBO canceled the series after the third incident in which a horse on the set suffered injuries and had to be euthanized. At Aqueduct in New York, 20 horses have died since Nov. 30. The Times ran an investigative series about racing culture and horse fatalities and Governor Cuomo has ordered an investigation into New York tracks.  In 2008, Eight Belles, a filly favored to win the Kentucky Derby, was euthanized by injection on the track after breaking both front ankles. Two years earlier, the great Barbaro suffered a similar fate.

Many in the industry believe that even under the best circumstances, fatalities in horse racing are as inevitable as concussions in football. Racing fans know it is not uncommon for horses to break bones during races and later receive a lethal injection. Does that make it right? Does that mean we accept the inevitable? Track surfaces, training regimens, schedules, breeding practices and the use of medications are all thought to be important variables. Is there anything fans can do to force improved safety for the horses and jockeys?

Top contenders in the 138th annual Kentucky Derby include Dullahan, Union Rags and I'll Have Another. Alas, there are no fillies running in this weekend's Derby (but there is the annual all-filly race at Kentucky Oaks). Prayers go out in advance to all the animals and riders.

Will you be watching?

@jschonb
dare to dream
Also online at prettytough.com and womentalksports.com

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