The destiny of injured racehorses

Sep 14, 2009 at 3:29 p.m. ET

When Eight Belles collapsed in 2008 at the Kentucky Derby, millions witnessed the tragic fall of a thoroughbred. Barbaro, who won the Derby in 2006, broke down in the Preakness and was euthanized later that year after complications from his injury. These big stories generate attention, but does the public know just how often injured racehorses are euthanized?

senior horse

A 2008 Associated Press survey on thoroughbred tracks in the U.S. reported more than three horse deaths a day in 2008 and 5,000 since 2003. The majority of these horses are euthanized after suffering terrible injuries on the track, according to AP.

"I just think [the public has a] total lack of awareness," says Jo Deibel of Angel Acres Horse Haven Rescue in Glenville, PA. Horses that are injured or lose too many races are subject to the possibility of euthanasia, being auctioned and potentially bought by slaughterhouses, or if they're lucky, sent to horse rescue ranches like Deibel's.

Why do the horses break down?

Several reasons exist. To begin, thoroughbreds have thinner bones and are therefore more injury prone. Many injuries could be avoided if the horses were allowed to grow and mature before racing, Deibel says.

"I feel that horses that are raced as 2-year-olds are more prone to breakdowns, bowed tendons and other damage caused by racing too young," she says. "I personally believe that horses that are first started as 3 years of age fare better in the long run."

Another possible reason is the dirt tracks, which some states like California have mandated to be replaced with a synthetic mixture found in some studies to be safer for horses and jockeys, according to an AP's 2008 report.

Drugs, therapeutic or otherwise, can also disguise maladies, says Michael Blowen of Old Friends Rescue Ranch in Georgetown, KY, adding that he believes the effects of steroids are "not in the long-term interest of the animal." Blowen also notes that standards vary among states on which horses the veterinarians deem healthy for racing. Tour of the Cat, a horse at Old Friends, was regarded unfit to race by a vet in one state for a leg malady but then passed in another.

Accidents happen

Some would say that just like other animals, horses are prone to injuries.

"Plain and simple--horses are big, athletic animals--and as athletes, are prone to injuries just like any other athlete," writes Kimberly Rinker in a blog. "Those involved with horses on any level know that a horse can break a leg in the field just having fun."

Sometimes those injuries require euthanasia simply to put the horse out of its misery.

Dr Margaret Ohlinger, veterinarian at a racetrack in Farmington, NY, says severe injuries like Eight Belles' and Barbaro's offer no other choice.

"I always try to save an animal if I think it can be saved ... and it is very sad [to euthanize horses]. It's very hard," she says. "But it's also what you have to do. It's the dark side of the business, I guess. There are catastrophic injuries that necessitate the horse being euthanized due to the severity of the injury."

The owners' finances also factor into euthanasia as an alternative to expensive surgery, Ohlinger says. She adds that tracks try to remove horses deemed unfit for racing.

"We do all that we can to try and prevent these breakdowns," she says. "It's a very complex industry. And at the heart of it is a live creature."

Next: Harness racing and the danger to the jockeys

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