Sport of Kings is a killing ground for young thoroughbred racers

Allen Warren and Sam

By HfH Guest Writer: Allen Warren


Allen Warren and Sam

Allen Warren and Sam

There are certain moments in our lives that are imprinted indelibly upon our memories. We remember exactly where we were, what we were doing and what we were thinking and felt on those days. For those of my generation these include November 22, 1963, when President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and July 21, 1969, when millions of Americans stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to watch on live television as Neil Armstrong took his giant step for mankind upon the moon. For many today, it is September 11, 2001, when again we watched on live television in horror and disbelief as hi-jacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center’s twin towers and brought both crumbling to the ground. All too often it is great tragedies that will remain vivid in our memories for the remainder of our lives.

For true horse lovers, there are also tragic dates that will resound in our memories forever. In the past ten years there have been two we will never forget. On May 20, 2006, the magnificent Thoroughbred race horse Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner that year, shattered his right hind leg while running in the second race of the Triple Crown, the Preakness. Despite multiple surgeries for the three broken bones, an attempt to keep him alive to stand at stud, he had to be euthanized in January the following year. Then another great Thoroughbred racer, the filly Eight Belles, died just over a year later on May 3, 2008, while actually running in the Derby itself, collapsing when both front legs shattered just over the finish line after placing second. Her horrific injuries required that she be immediately euthanized right there on the track. Both Barbaro and Eight Belles had been raced as two year olds and were barely three when they died.

For me, there was another horse racing tragedy that remains even more vivid in my mind. It was July 6, 1975, and I was again watching on live TV with millions of other Americans as Ruffian, an undefeated filly, ran in a match race against that year’s Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park in New York. Ruffian was a beauty, a dark bay standing 16.2 hands. Not only was she undefeated, she had won her first 10 races at distances from 5.5 furlongs to 1.5 miles by an average of 8 1/3 lengths, setting track records almost every time she ran. She easily won the Filly Triple Crown, now known at the Triple Tiara, and was named the Eclipse Award winner as the outstanding two-year-old filly in 1974. Only one of her track record times has ever been broken to this day and Ruffian was rightfully nicknamed “Queen of the Fillies” by her many fans. Her sire was Bold Ruler, who also fathered the famous Triple Crown winner Secretariat and Lucien Laurin, who trained that famous colt, once said, “As God as my witness, she may even be better than Secretariat.” This female-against-male horse race had received similar media attention to the historic “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs two years earlier, so there I was, not even a horse racing fan, glued to my television set to see what the outcome would be. It turned out to be the one of the most heart wrenching things I’ve ever witnessed.

Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure came out of the gate side by side and raced around the track as if they were glued together. Then she began to pull away and there was no question in anyone’s mind who the winner would be. Until suddenly and with no warning her right foreleg simply blew out, flopping all over the place.

Ruffian as a two-year-old in 1974

Ruffian as a two-year-old in 1974

Jockey Jacinto Vasquez did his best to rein her to a stop, but she just kept running on three legs, covering almost 100 yards before she finally collapsed. That is the picture that will remain in my memory forever, that valiant horse in horrible pain still determined to win the race. Both sesamoid bones in her leg had broken and despite a three-hour operation to try and save her, she thrashed around so much coming out of sedation that she did further damage and was put down. It turns out Ruffian had had two other serious injuries during her brief career, popping a splint while winning the Sorority Stakes and suffering a hairline fracture in her right hind leg during the Spinaway. Despite these warning signs, her owners kept racing her. Media coverage of Ruffian’s death was similar to that of Barbaro and Eight Belles 30 years later, and then as now was soon forgotten as the injuries and deaths of young Thoroughbred race horses continues unabated at tracks across North America. A fact overlooked by those who go to Thoroughbred tracks to bet on and claim to love these magnificent animals is that from 25 to 35 die at every major racing meet from injuries similar to those suffered by Ruffian, Barbaro and Eight Belles, and countless more at smaller venues each year. The vast majority of these come in two-year-old races, the current norm in Thoroughbred racing. There have already been ten deaths due to similar breakdowns already at Saratoga Springs in New York since that meet opened on July 18, three in three days from August 21 through August 23, but those horses are not famous and no one remembers their names. Ruffian is probably remembered today only because she was immortalized first in the song “Stewball” by Joan Baez following her death, and later in a TV movie about her life starring Sam Shepard that aired in 2007 following Barbaro’s tragic breakdown.

Read PART II Sport of Kings is a killing ground for young thoroughbred racers


    September 14, 2014
  • Margaret

    There are a number of tracks who insist on seeing the birthdate of a young two year ld. I’m speaking of racing in the spring.

    Seabiscuit was raced as a two year old and suffered HORRIBLE knees as a result. He’s buried in northern CA on a beautiful 5000 ranch. His burial site is VERY VERY closely guarded secret.

    I too remember Ruffian. I have bitter memories because my stepbrother and his buddies made fun of the breakdown and his mommy backed him. (she was NOT my anything mother). I sadly went to bed that night wondering just what the vets were going to do to save Ruffian. I grew up knowing the only horse to be saved at that time was Your Host sire of 5 time Horse of the Year Kelso. The next morning we of course learned that she had Bernie put down in the early hours.

    It was in part due to Ruffian that the recovery pool is now used for horses coming out of anesthesia. They can kick and run without injuring themselves further. I had no idea of this until Barbaro.

    Wouldn’t you just know it I was at my sisters with no internet at the time. Internet was basically nonexistent in that part of town. I could and couldn’t watch. I knew the outcome. Or thought I did.

    Then the Barbaro watch started. I have personally found more online who speak and think VERY similarly to me. It comes from them first. L day was the worst. To this day I have a difficult time saying or typing the word. But most people know what I’m saying by the initial.

    CBS ran an online almost 8 minute video of Barbaro with Dr. R just a few short weeks following L day. Barbaro even hugged Dr. R! And Sabina Louise Pierce’s photos were spectacular. Barbaro even made friends with a cow–named Mocha!

    Then came a personally traumatizing time for me. It was Christmas 2006. I was in WY and internet at this house was mostly available at will. I followed along as best I could. But other things out here in the west foretold something that to this day terrifies me. Mountain climbers fell at Mt. Hood. They were lost and not only lost but weather set in and search teams couldn’t go out. So while the weather eventually headed east I was due to leave to come home headed DIRECTLY INTO ITS PATH.

    This was a scary time. On New Year’s Eve I slipped on a block of ice at my sisters tearing my knee up pretty bad. 4 days later, with a knee brace on I rolled my car at 60 mph in NV.

    Because of the care that the people gave me both first responders, the deputy and the doctors I walked out of the hospital some 4 hours later–banged up, bruised and with a half functioning brain that had been scrambled in the accident. But I was alive! and on my feet with no apparent broken bones!

    Fast forward some 3 weeks. As I slowly recovered from the accident, bruising healing, sleep patterns returning etc., Barbaro had some how gone bad. I know I heard something about another vet coming in and doing special surgery. But I don’t know what the bleepers happened. I didn’t know then and I still don’t. And the fact is PTSD won’t let me.

    I remember Jan 29. OMG, I screamed, I cried I was in shock. I was at work and everyone came running. I couldn’t believe it. Dr. R hadn’t been able to overcome that falling house of cards. In the sad aftermath I watched as Dr. R explained how Barbaro had fallen apart over the weekend. How he had gotten L in both front feet. I sat in my recliner shaking my head. I knew and understood that he had done EVERYTHING he could do to prevent this.

    People say it was about saving Barbaro for stud. NO it wasn’t. In all likelihood Barbaro would not have been able to support his weight on his hind legs like he would need to to breed. It was about grace, how we treat animals, care and compassion. It was about love. It was learning about the horrors of slaughter and what the horses are subjected to. It was learning about wild horses and seeing a picture of Cloud. Cloud who looked into my soul and literally stole my heart 5 years ago.

    For a truly wonderful example of a trainer and owners who justifiably waited till their mare was ready to race I refer one and all to Zenyatta. Z broke her maiden late in her three year old season. She went on obviously to thrill one and all with her late charges. She thrilled EVERYONE with her dancing. And when I met Z she gave me a hug.

    Eight Belles broke EVERYONE’s heart. BB had to be drugged to beat her. She was the best of the best. Would BB have beat her not drugged to gills?–I don’t believe so. Eight Belles and her trainer were accused of all kinds vicious accusations. She’d been drugged. NO SHE WASNT. All her post mortem examinations showed this. She was every bit as great as Ruffian. She had toughness, class and a willingness to go on even tired. She was a truly remarkable game mare that suffered a cruel fatal injury.

    September 14, 2014
  • Marie Moran

    So sad. These wonderful horses gave their lives in an attempt to win. Too bad their owners and trainers exploited that drive to win. It’s only about money.

    September 14, 2014
  • Debbie Stoutamire

    I remember doing research on Secretariat when writing about his great great grandson – Pete; a horse I fell in love with years ago who ultimately led me to the Habitat for Horses. When Secretariat died a necropsy was done on him and his heart was twice the size of a normal horse. Secretariat had the heart of a champion, as did Ruffian. Actually, in God’s eyes all of the horses He created are champions. When will this tragedy end?

    September 14, 2014
  • Maggie Frazier

    Horse races have stopped being any form of an entertainment – Barbaro, Eight Belles, & Ruffian were all a big picture of what happens to these animals so people can make money on babies! The unknown names of the thousands of colts & fillies (because that’s what they are) that have broken down or are just not fast really boggles the mind. Its shameful these kind talented animals are just thrown away to further support greed!

    September 15, 2014
  • Margaret

    Let me mention Old Friends. It’s the ONLY facility that accepts stallions IN THE WORLD. Michael founded OF after Ferdinand was slaughtered. He specializes more in the little “no name” horses–the ones that won and didn’t–who have a chance to show the world what rescue, love and care are all about.

    There are people in the business who shouldn’t be there. And even some by looking at them would make you think twice. The one or two people I’m thinking of are on video and it becomes apparent they DO CARE about their horses.

    Another for instance is a rescue that is currently happening right now. A friend in KY got a VERY malnourished mare. Over this past weekend her former trainer and owners have stepped up to help pay for this mares needs. They’ve helped by bringing much needed supplies.

    I see more and more prior breeders, owners and trainers stepping up. Is it enough? No. Will it fix years of abuse? No. But it is a start. Every journey begins with that first step.

    If you can’t adopt you can donate funds to a 501 of your choice. Check them out thoroughly. And be prepared for the warmth that will fill your soul when you do that first donation. It’s something that you have to experience to understand cause words won’t do it Justice.

    September 15, 2014
  • Lisa

    First, Margret, we accepted stallions when I did rescue. Right now, I am trying to save my farm from a corrupt mortgage company, and I very well may have a terminal illness, so we can’t do rescue, we have lost everything, but racing? I remember being 14, and thinking about the tragedy of Ruffian and how she should have been allowed to wake up in water, I tried to call Aquaduct to tell them my 14 year old theory to save her. I had no idea it has been used since, but that was my gut reaction. I LOVE racing, and would like to race my Arabians, but not until they are over 4 years old, maybe five. I don’t BACK my horses until 4– we do everything else, but we don’t put weight on their back. I don’t canter until they are five, or ASK me, and we do everything SLOW to preserve their soundness.
    Last year the did a surveyasking Arabian owners if we wanted to race our babies, and I LOUDLY said NO. Most others did also. It makes me glad that MOST Arabian owners will not brutalize our horses like the TB and QH trainers. Even 3 is still too young, but people don’t want to spend the money raising a horse until 4 or older to ”test” its speed, and I understand, I have lost everything by not selling weanlings. or yearlings. Thinking the horses would stand a better chance if I raised and trained them before I sold them, and now I can’t give away my amazing horses, and I may have to euthanize my horses to keep them from the killers and meat hooks. It is a lousy lousy business. Heart breaking. And no help from anybody. They NEED to let the babies mature and grow. Period. No futurities, no 2 year old season.

    September 16, 2014
  • Robynne Catheron

    The heartbreak of racehorses with legs that literally crumble beneath them is so preventable, if trainers, owners and riders would simply consider the horse instead if their wallets! The same goes for arthritis-ridden and failing joints of horses of every other discipline, especially the multi-million dollar Futurity for two-year olds.

    If training and racing/riding could just be postponed until the horse was five, I guarantee there would be MANY less injuries. Riding a two-year old horse is comparable to getting a piggyback ride from a small child. Sure, they might be able to lift an adult, but SHOULD they? A horse’s growth plates don’t close until at least age five. Their bones mature from the ground up, meaning that while their lower legs may be mature, their hips, shoulders and spine are not. For indisputable proof, read “The Ranger Piece” by Dr Deb Bennett. That study should be required reading for every single person who raises a horse, including the most famous trainers like Clinton Anderson, Monty Roberts, the Parellis, etc. Obviously, they are all too stubborn or egotistical or too busy money-grubbing to consider the horse, because every one of them start their horses under saddle at two years old, mere babies. Ten years later those same horses are on joint supplements or are suffering from debilitating arthritis. They still don’t get it.

    The other thing about racehorses is the fact that they’re bred for sleekness and fleetness, with toothpick-thin bones. Of course many of them are going to suffer shattered legs, there’s nothing there to support them. Cannon bones should be at least 8″ in circumference, but I’ll lay odds that’s not the case with these baby racehorses.

    Why the heck haven’t they figured this out? Because they’re in too much of a hurry to grub that money. If they would just consider the horse. Sigh..

    September 16, 2014