HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns

February 5, 2007

Barbaro’s injury and death a setback in racing

By Jesse Menden

The death of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was a big loss to those in the racing community and people around the country that were following the roller coaster ride that was the horses’ last months.

His death has led to much talk about the safety and the ethical nature of horse racing. The industry does care about the horses, but if Barbaro was still alive and racing, the topic might have received more attention and minor changes may have been made.

In a sport that has moved from the back burner to the refrigerator, a horse like Barbaro could have gone a long way in revitalizing the sport.

Affirmed, in 1978, was the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont for the Triple Crown. Since then, very few horses have come close, and interest in the sport has faded.

Going to the track used to be an event, a family outing on the weekend. Now, some tracks are filled with unshaven, single men who are trying to make a living off of the horses.

The sport has changed dramatically since it was a national sport in the 1930s and ‘40s, when horse racing had heroes like War Admiral, Seabiscuit, and even Secretariat in the 1970s.

Other sports, such as basketball, baseball, and football, have a chance to promote their games through their superstars.

The National Basketball Association throws Kevin Garnett, Dwayne Wade, and others into the spotlight to keep the health of the game alive.

Horse racing has not had that opportunity in over 40 years, which is why the track attendance has not grown at most tracks in the past decades.

Barbaro was a rare talent that could have easily won the Triple Crown. He had won all six races that he entered heading into that fateful day at Pimlico. In the first leg of the Triple Crown, Barbaro beat out 19 other horses and won by an amazing six and a half lengths.

Barbaro was one of the most versatile thoroughbreds to come around in a long time. He could win on the turf, he could win on the dirt, he could even win in the mud.

In the six races that he finished, he was never worse than fourth place at any point in any of the races, and that was against large fields that ranged from 11-20 horses.

This horse was special.

Barbaro would have been that horse to get people back out to the track and excited about the sport.

With more fans and attention poured onto the sport, other things such as safety and ethical practice would come next, and perhaps be taken more seriously, if it needed to be.

But instead, horse racing has to move on for another year into obscurity, and questions from outsiders about ethical practice linger on.

Groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are against the use of whips and anti-inflammatory drugs, and want the racing shut down. Their worries do have some legitimacy.

It was reported that over 200 horses were euthanized last year at California race tracks due to injuries.

That, obviously, is too many, but horses were meant to run, and how many injuries would be suffered out on the open, bumpy plain?

While owners do try to make racing as safe as possible, there is some room for improvement in safety. Many of the top tracks around the country make their tracks as fast as possible, which, in turn, leads to more injuries.

Tracks like Canterbury Park in Shakopee, claim to have a deeper, softer track to prevent injuries in front of a more family-oriented crowd.

In the last couple of years, some high profile tracks have taken steps to make their tracks safer, with many installing new polytracks.

While it has many horse players scratching their heads on how to bet on these tracks, early returns have this new surface as being safer.

Larry King hosted an open forum on the topic last week on his cable television show, following the death of Barbaro.

Predictably, members of PETA went after the various facets of horse racing that were mention and above. But surprisingly, one of the most knowledgeable animal enthusiasts in the world, Jack Hannah, did not agree with PETA on the topic of horse racing.

He said that the stables that he has visited, some by surprise, have all been really impressive. He said the horses are treated like royalty, and have better health care than humans.

The tragic death of Barbaro has given a stage to those who are against horse racing and perhaps don’t understand it. That is too bad, because his talent and life would have brought horse racing to a whole new level, both in ethical practice and racing.