A few years back, my wife and I went to San Diego on a short vacation. We went up the coast a ways to the Del Mar track to catch a few races and make a few silly bets.
I had never been to a horserace before. Like most people, my only encounter with horseracing was seeing the Kentucky Derby once a year on TV. I never got what the big deal was. On the small screen, with the foreshortening effect of a long-lens TV camera, the horses always seemed to lumber strangely and awkwardly, like CGI dinosaurs.
But that day in Del Mar, the second those horses left the gate in the first race I instantly understood. The first time you see thoroughbreds run in person, you can’t believe how blindingly fast they actually are. They’re almost cartoonishly fast, as if whimsically breaking the laws of physics.
Since then, I’ve had much more respect for those horses and for the “sport” in general, if you can call it that (as with auto racing, there remains a spirited, ongoing national barroom debate over whether the term is deserved).
We’ve occasionally tried to gauge our daughter’s interest in horseracing — after all, everyone knows ten-year-old girls love horses, right? — but to little avail.
“I’m opposed to horseracing for lots of reasons,” she precociously (and presciently) said several days ago, well before Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, which saw the euthanization — can we just call it killing? — of the filly Eight Belles literally moments after the race, in full view of the crowd and the TV audience.
She said one of the reasons she doesn’t like horseracing is the whips, to which I lamely countered: “But the whips don’t actually hurt them. The whips are small and the horses hardly feel it.”
“Then wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?” she answered without missing a beat, using typical stone-cold, crystal-clear kid’s logic.
All I could do was laugh. Checkmated by a ten-year-old with hardly a fight. I knew it and she knew it.
The national reaction to Eight Belles’s very public death/euthanization/execution has been less clear-cut. The internet reaction broke down into the usual tribes that anyone who’s gone online lately will recognize immediately:
• Pompous, self-appointed experts who, apparently able to read horses’ minds, assure us that the animals love the sport;
• Animal rights activists who disingenuously compare horseracing to dogfighting (in horseracing, fatal injury is an accident, albeit a too-common one, whereas with dogfighting, it’s the desired goal);
• Fringe leftists who chime in with the usual shopworn non-sequiturs like “Why should we care about a single horse when thousands have died in Iraq and no one cares?”;
• And of course dim-bulb conservatives who insult everyone else IN ALL CAPS WITH LOTS OF SPELING AND GRAMATICLE ERERS AND TO MANY EXCLAMASION POINNTS!!!!!!!!!!!!
You know the cast of characters all too well. I’m still not sure where I fit in.
I like horseracing but am not blind to the problems with it. I value animals but am not an animal rights activist by any means (since one reason I value some of them is because they taste so good). And since everything’s political these days, as far as that goes, George W. Bush drove me away from conservatism for good and the fringe left has become just as effective at driving me away from their side.
The bottom line for me is the fact the image of that lonely horse crumpled in a heap while everyone else celebrates another horse’s victory.
You can go on all you want about how well cared-for topshelf thoroughbreds are. But we all see now how quickly they’re jettisoned when they can no longer generate revenue — basically in five minutes or less.
Indeed, I was shocked less by the horse’s death than by the quickness of it. By the time NBC got around to getting the first person on-camera about it, she’d already been killed right there on the track — without even the respect and simple decency of being moved someplace more private.
I’ll always be amazed at how fast and beautiful a horse can be when it’s in shape and ready to run. But I’ll certainly never go out of my way to watch a horserace again.