MAISONS-LAFFITTE, France – If a sport’s biggest concern is that the competitors come home alive, it can’t have much of a future. Like everyone who watched the Kentucky Derby on May 4, I breathed a sigh of relief when all the horses passed the wire with four legs under them.
Too often that doesn’t happen in American thoroughbred racing. This year it was Santa Anita, the premier California track, that grabbed the headlines: 23 horses have died there since December. The second stage of the Triple Crown, the Preakness, gets underway today in Baltimore at Pimlico, which has had its own share of tragedy. Two horses died in early races on Preakness Day in 2016 – one of them after winning – and, most famously, the Derby winner Barbaro suffered a fatal injury at the Preakness in 2006.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I’m an American living in France and training racehorses. The sport I signed on to when I started working with horses here more than a decade ago is different. The sport I love is all about choosing a young horse with ability, training it up to its best physical potential and then taking it to the racecourse to see the results of months or years of hard work – both in the saddle and on the ground. It is not about holding your breath when your horses run, hoping they come home safe.
On Derby Day, when the American horses were being readied for the race of their lives by being given an injection of the diuretic Lasix and hand-walked in the confines of a shed row, I was riding with our first set of horses along the tree-lined paths that lead to our training gallops northwest of Paris. The set included our runner for the day, a fractious 4-year-old colt called Prince Parsim, who had an entry later at Longchamp, the premier French track in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne.
Prince was racing a mile and a quarter on soft turf. This was a middle-distance race for us. In the United States, it would be considered a route, or long-distance race. Prince didn’t start his day with an injection or any other sort of medication. In fact, the only medical treatment he had ever been given in the six months I’d had him was a week of ulcer medication when he arrived.
American racing has evolved into a different sport, far removed from its 17th-century English roots, when riders galloped along the rolling Newmarket heath for miles. Speed is king, on punishing dirt tracks over short distances. Horses are stabled on-site, in dusty barns hard on sensitive lungs. A litany of so-called therapeutic medications keeps them ticking. Bute for aches and pains. Clenbuterol for dusty lungs. And the elephant in the room: Lasix for exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging. Lasix is injected into more than 90% of thoroughbreds in the United States on the day they race, ostensibly to prevent bleeding in the lungs during intense effort. There is little proof that the drug accomplishes this task, but there is a lot of evidence identifying Lasix as a performance-enhancing drug.
The result has been a fragilization of the animal, a decrease in the longevity of a racing career and an increase in fatal accidents. And a public that says they’ve had enough.
The rest of the racing world is not without its issues – attendance and betting are falling as a younger generation loses interest – but there is an awareness that we must be better stewards to the animals we keep. Outside the United States, if a horse has a problem and needs treatment, that horse isn’t racing. We train our horses in training centers and on private farms, away from the close quarters of the racecourse. Horses are exercised on various surfaces and in different directions, often walking through parks or forests to get to the training gallops. We have longer-distance races over more forgiving surfaces, reducing the emphasis on brutal speed.
Horses are remarkable creatures, and they will adapt to nearly anything we ask. Critics of racing sometimes say we are forcing the horses to do something they don’t want to do. Anyone who has spent any time around a horse knows otherwise. Just ask Prince. No amount of coercing was going to get him to go into his box at Longchamp that Saturday. No meant no, even if it meant standing outside in the pelting rain when a storm blew up before the race. Yet when he was saddled and in the parade ring, he couldn’t wait to get to work. He relaxed, ears pricked forward, and walked calmly out to the track. He broke well and settled third in the 17-runner field before moving out to lead going into the turn for home. He kept the lead briefly but concluded that the distance was too long and faded to finish downfield. Not today, he had decided.
We have plenty of time to get Prince sorted out. He’s only 4, and he’s still a colt, so gelding will help matters. He has no other health issues and could keep racing for several more years. Many more older horses race in Europe than in America, where a career often ends at 3 or 4. I have some promising young horses in my yard, but I also have horses that are racing and winning at 9 years old. One of them is called Ray of Hope. He fractured his back right cannon bone in 2017, and after surgery to put in two screws, we thought for sure he would retire. But he wasn’t having it. After a year off, Ray of Hope came back to win twice and place four times. He’s 9 now, and he is still racing and loving it. He will retire next year, after he turns 10.
There is a magic to being in the company of horses. Watching them develop, learning their character, respecting their power, seeing them try their hardest in competition. This relationship with our fellow animals is a primordial part of being human. Horse racing deserves its place in the world, but we must do our best to prove we deserve horse racing.
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