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A Take on a Filly's Courage

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Anyone who watched the Kentucky Derby yesterday has to feel both saddened
and amazed -- saddened, of course, by the death of the filly, Eight
Belles, and amazed by the power of the winner, Big Brown. As a long
time very ambivalent fan of horseracing and a lover of Thoroughbreds,
I can't help seeing what happened as a kind of paradigm of
"Thoroughbredness", if you want to call it that.

I have a friend who trains a jumper who is a relative of Eight Belles,
a son of her grandsire, Unbridled. When my friend got the horse, a
woman he knows, a steward at Santa Anita, told him to watch out,
because Unbridleds tend to be both unsound and fearless, and my friend
has found this to be the case. Where most horses have at least some
caution, my friend's horse will try anything -- his mental toughness and
competitiveness always takes over, no matter what the circumstances.
This is what we saw in Eight Belles -- she was more resolute and
competitive than was good for her, and she literally ran herself to
death. When the race was finished, every part of her was exhausted,
including, I am sure, the support apparatus of ligaments and tendons
that were keeping her bones together. She probably stumbled and broke
one ankle, then stepped hard on the other and broke that one. Then she
fell.

But Big Brown was the other half of the equation. Big Brown looks to
be a truly exceptional horse -- exceptionally strong and exceptionally
competitive, possibly the Secretariat of our day. When the filly
decided she wasn't going to give up, she risked herself more than she
would have with a lesser horse -- and in general, male horses are
stronger than female horses, which is why so few fillies run in the
Derby.

Some people think there should be no horse racing. Certainly, horse
racing as a spectator sport is staggering under the weight of these
recent horrors -- Barbaro, and then this. But, as I've written
elsewhere, without horse racing, there would be no Thoroughbreds as we
know them, and there is nothing like them. The Thoroughbreds I have
bred and trained and now ride, modest specimens all, are athletic,
game, and eager, full of energy and intelligence. Beautiful, too.

It is not racing per se that is cruel, it is American racing as it has
been, on dirt tracks at continuous high speeds, for lots of money.
Horses in Europe, who run on the turf, and only exert themselves all
out at the end of fairly long races, do not break down as frequently
as American horses on American tracks. American horses bred like
European horses, who run in races on the grass, also break down less.
American horses have been expected to start racing early and to go
fast from the post to the wire, because the people in the grandstands
can see the whole race and like plenty of speed. Fortunately, American
racing authorities are finally waking up to the industry-wide damage
that a high injury-rate does, and American racetracks are in the
process of changing their racing surfaces from dirt to something
called "polytrack" that is easier on the horses and rather similar to
turf. Although horsemen do complain because the surface is unfamiliar,
a friend of a friend I know at Hollywood Park told my friend recently
that her job has changed -- and her job is doing the paperwork on horses
injured at the track. She says that she does 75-80% less paperwork
now -- that is the difference, for the better, in the injury rate in
Southern California since they switched to polytrack. Churchill Downs
is still dirt. The difference in the surface means that breeders have
to breed a different style of horse, too -- a sturdier horses with a
different action, like European horses.

It is possible, though, that Eight Belles would have run herself to
death on any surface. We all know people who cannot admit defeat, and
horses can be the same. We all know people who simply defy their own
weaknesses and go on. I see Eight Belles' death as heroic in that
sense -- stubborn and foolish, shocking and tragic, but not, in the end,
an accident. I think the filly's courage deserves respect, not pity.

Originally published in the New York Times' "The Rail" Blog.