Eight Belles was a pretty horse, a horse with tremendous heart. And though it may be somewhat crass to admit this, I don't know that collectively we would have despaired the loss of any horse in this year's Derby in quite the same way that we've felt the loss of this horse. For all the speculation and admiration that followed horses like the incredible Big Brown and the other favorites, Eight Belles was the story. The filly who skipped the Oaks to race with the boys. A filly more evenly matched with Derby colts than most people recognized. Her numbers put her flat in the middle of the pack-- even before she raced, it was clear that at least half of the field didn't measure up to her.
And, again, probably not a popular opinion, but the fact that she was a girl, I think, plays on our collective sympathies even more. Her trainer and owner and jockey fawned over her in a way that people don't fawn over colts. Called her "sweetheart" and "baby." And speaking for myself, as a woman, I loved the "girl power" aspect of the story. If I'd been able to bet on Derby day, I would have put my money on her (and, of course, my Denis of Cork-- bless his heart to come from 20th to finish 3rd-- he's still a horse to watch), especially after seeing her on TV on Derby Day. She just looked like she had a win in her.
I like to talk a good game, but in reality I know bupkus about horse racing in the grand scheme of things. And, like many people, my knee jerk reaction to the tragedy was to think, "I don't know how I can ever watch horseracing again." I felt that way when I watched a horse die in the paddock area of Keeneland last fall, a senseless and incomprehensible death where the horse reared, fell down, and broke his neck on the bricks.
And that was my gut reaction: "I don't know if I can watch horseracing again" not "should horseracing exist."
But that's been a question that's been raised in the wake of this horrible loss and in the wake of the loss of Barbaro. In some online news sources, I've seen pundits speculate about whether or not there's a difference between horseracing and dogfighting. Speculation that we condemn one and celebrate the other only based on the socioeconomic differences between the fans.
Again, I stress that I come from no place of expertise when it comes to horseracing. But I can honestly say that for the most part I have more concern for the treatment and well being of the humans who work on the backside of the track than I do for the horses on a day-to-day basis. And yes, that does concern me.
The questions that should be raised-- and are being raised by many-- are ones about reform to the sport. Should all tracks move to Polytrack? Tracks like Santa Anita have seen dramatic reductions in catastrophic injuries since moving to Polytrack. Should we be looking at reform in horse breeding? European racehorses are more hearty than their American counterparts. Should we be doing more when it comes to horse medicine? There is now sophisticated medical imaging technology that can detect even the most delicate fracture.
There are always going to be things about horseracing that upset me. But that doesn't necessarily set it apart from other sports. Athletes in general risk injury or worse for the love of the sport and for their fans. The level of excess at the Derby is generally appalling, but events like the Superbowl have it beat.
I will say this categorically: I really, truly, passionately wish they'd ban whips.
But I do think, for the most part, horses are very well cared for. I believe they have generally good lives. And I do believe that they love to run. It's hard not to believe that when you watch a horse race.
What happened to Eight Belles was a senseless, incomprehensible tragedy. And as I still try to recover from the news, I'm reminded by other news today that life is just goddamned full of senseless, incomprehensible tragedies. 10,000+ dead in Myanmar. Six sea lions shot dead while trapped in humane traps on the Columbia River. 12,000 kids in China sick with a deadly virus.
It doesn't make this any less sad. Nor is the answer to shuttle it off as just one more thing to outrage and appall us.
Online today at the NYTimes, this was posted in the comments of The Rail blog:
Michael Blowen, of Old Friends (http://oldfriendsequine.com) sent me this
e-mail on Sunday that he received from a young fan:
Hello. My name is XXXX,
and I am 11 years old, and I won money off of Eight Bells at a Derby party
yesterday. I feel so bad about what happened to her that I can not enjoy my
money that I won. So, I am going to donate my winnings to your organazation and
so is my mom. I found out about you on the internet last night. Your farm sounds
like a very nice place. I am asking everyone that I know if they also won money
off of Eight Bells, and if they would like to dotate their money as well. Some
people that I am asking are donating money just to be nice. So I just wanted to
let you know that as soon as I collect the money, my mom will send you a check.
— Posted by alex
Also worth checking out: Jane Smiley's Op-Ed column.