It is what we owners and breeders fear the most. A call from a farm employee, trainer, or vet with that oddly familiar, awkward tone foretelling the bad news we have lost one of our horses. Or, perhaps even worse, in the moment of excitement and anticipation of competition, one of our horses goes down on the track or falls over a jump. The end result is the same. It is as if one’s heart is ripped from within, leaves this earth, or falls in tandem to the ground with it. The loss of a horse to injury, accident, illness, or to the ravages of old age is tough on all horse people. That persistent question comes back to taunt us: Why do we continue to breed, raise, and compete these fragile creatures?
Eight Belles’ unfortunate and untimely death in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) has led to enormous criticism of our sport. It has also reminded many of us in the Thoroughbred business of our own significant losses and the pain those losses bring. On the heels of other tragedies in racing (Ruffian, Go for Wand, and Barbaro immediately come to mind) and eventing (the Rolex three-day event at the Kentucky Horse Park the weekend before the Derby was marred by the death of two horses and the serious injury of one rider), there is growing concern for the future of equine sports. Some of us feel compelled to defend equestrian sports in general and horse racing in particular. Our critics ask: How can these losses be justified?
Many close to Larry Jones have described him as a sincere, hard-working, honest trainer who puts his horses first. Not unlike many hands-on trainers in the business, Jones gets personally involved with the day-to-day care and management of the horses in his stable. I am told he often galloped Eight Belles himself. His friends assure me he would not lead a horse to the paddock, as he personally did with Eight Belles on Derby day, unless she was fit for the demands of racing. No one needs to defend him for the decision to run her against the males in the Derby. Eight Belles earned the right, by objective standards, to participate in one of the greatest spectacles in sport.
And no one should criticize equestrian sport without understanding that losing a horse unexpectedly, in or out of competition, changes a horse person’s perspective forever. Those who criticize equestrian sport posit that, if we cannot make the sport absolutely safe, we should stop forcing horses to compete against their will. (One does not even need to address the "against their will" argument; just ask them to explain how a human is going to force a horse to do anything it does not want to do, such as run faster, jump higher, or leave a burning building. If they have the answer, they will have a new vocation with a huge following.)
We continue breeding, raising, and competing our horses because it gives us purpose and pleasure, despite the inevitable risks. It is hard to explain how rewarding it is when our horses do well and even harder to match the sense of accomplishment in any other endeavor. It gives us connection to something greater than the sum of all parts. With our involvement come enormous challenges and responsibilities, some character-building, some exceedingly joyful (watching an awkward foal turned out in a field of green grass for the first time immediately comes to mind), and some painful to the core.
We must continue to take meaningful new steps to try to make equestrian sports safer. New surfaces have been designed and installed. More restrictive race-day medication, more sophisticated drug testing and pre-race detention policies have been implemented.
Perhaps we should also consider and act upon some of the suggestions from those expressing legitimate and well-reasoned concern. It may make sense, and it may appease some of the critics, for instance, to decrease the economic incentives to breed horses primarily capable of racing short, early, and often, and increase incentives to breed horses with stamina and soundness that will be able to race well beyond a 3-year-old campaign. Even as we continue with and expand these earnest efforts to care for our equine athletes and make competition safer, injuries, some fatal to horses and riders, will happen, and we will feel the pain again. It is as inevitable as tomorrow, even with our very best efforts today. It just is.
Joel B. Turner is a breeder, owner, trainer, three-day event rider, and attorney from Louisville, Ky.