The Last Kentucky Derby

Photograph: Churchill Downs in 1901 – Public Domain

This Saturday, May 4th, is Derby Day in Louisville. Twenty-two horses will be forced to race so that a record purse of $3 million may change hands.

None of that money will go to preserve the habitat of untamed horses. Most betters never learn what a horse in natural habitat looks like.

Nor will a penny go to support the world’s scattered bands of free-ranging, naturalized horses, such as the Mustangs and burros of the U.S. west. (The “official Derby menu” from Churchill Downs, Inc. features beef short ribs. It’s for beef farming that free-ranging horses so frequently get rounded up and driven off their lands.)

We humans excel at making use of other animals, extracting wealth through that use, exhausting them, disposing of them. This week, the 145th Kentucky Derby will showcase these habits. It’s cruelty of the worst sort, garnished with mint and wearing a fancy hat.

Invading Omaha Beach

Frivolous, frenzied pressure surrounds the horse called Omaha Beach, born from an investor’s plaything called War Front, and dubbed most likely to win. Because the international bloodstock scene is all about ROI, this horse and the others are run so hard their lungs bleed. Racetracks use a diuretic—furosemide, a.k.a. Lasix—to stop horses from bleeding through their noses.

Trainer Richard Mandella describes Omaha Beach as “a kind horse. A horse that’s easy to be around.” We are just sensitive enough to perceive kindness in the other animals—even as we amuse ourselves at their expense.

UPDATE: Just three days before the 2019 Kentucky Derby, Omaha Beach was removed from the race, having come down with breathing problems associated with a trapped epiglottis. Inflammation of airway structures can cause a horse’s epiglottis to get stuck in folds of tissue, according to Equus Magazine.

Bitter Ends

Horses continue to die in professional racing, no matter how “venerable” the racetrack. Fact is, horses die every week at U.S. racetracks. Fatalities include Kentucky Derby horses Barbaro (April 29, 2003 – January 29, 2007) and Eight Belles (February 23, 2005 – May 3, 2008).

And as long as the horse breeding business exists, so will the auctions and the killer buyers. Tens of thousands of horses, including racehorses, go to slaughter each year. With horse slaughter disallowed in the United States (it stopped in 2006), the unwanted animals just get a longer, more excruciating journey over the Canadian and Mexican borders for a slaughter. Don’t kid yourself about this. That $3 million purse isn’t buying sanctuaries for four-year old horses, either.

Cold Comfort

The racetrack industry is always debating “reform” that could limit drugging horses in the Triple Crown events. A purportedly toothier proposal is HR 1754, the Horse Racing Integrity Act. It would create a nationwide standard for testing in racing horses, implemented by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Churchill Downs, Inc. opposes the Horse Racing Integrity Act. The major animal-advocacy groups back the bill. Yet it would not touch the dangerous use of bisphosphonates—osteoporosis drugs that impede bone development when used in colts.

Real Integrity

Given the temptation to push boundaries to win, the racing industry will keep tormenting horses—drugs or no drugs. If we’d ask serious questions, we’d find no integrity exists in horse racing.

And this Saturday’s Derby would be the last.

Most of us claim to abhor animal abuse. This Saturday, then, let’s refuse to don bonnets. Let’s decline to stick mint leaves in drinks. Let’s not make light of this event, bet on this event, or allow its realities go unmentioned.

Let’s act upon a baseline of decency, speak up in social circles, and start treating horseracing as the blood sport it is.

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.