PAWS Magazine

Issue 40, Winter 1999

Emerald Break Downs

"We take healthy horses and destroy them"

by Mike Jones
PAWS Investigator

Kent Desormeaux said it after winning the 1998 Kentucky Derby on May 2nd aboard Real Quiet, a horse owned by Mike Pegram of Mount Vernon, Washington.

"I asked him for his life."

Desormeaux said it again after Real Quiet won the Preakness, the second jewel in horse racing’s Triple Crown, May 16th.

"I asked him for his life and he gave it to me."

It is a common saying at the racetrack, one that reveals the level of sacrifice expected of a Thoroughbred racehorse: "I asked that horse for his life today." To ask a racehorse for his life is to ask that horse to run through the stress, to run through the pain, to run through the fear, even if the effort proves fatal. These mighty yet fragile creatures run on the razor’s edge, where a subtle misstep can cause catastrophic injury. The line between life and death makes the profession of racehorse jockey the world’s most dangerous sport in the rate of debilitating and fatal injuries.

Too often racehorses make the ultimate sacrifice for the entertainment of the betting public.

When most outsiders think of horse racing they think of a scenic spot like Churchill Downs with its legendary horses, celebrity trainers, wealthy, eccentric owners, mint juleps, immaculately landscaped grounds, spires atop the grandstand. They don’t think about a harried vet racing the clock to administer Lasix prior to the four-hour limit before a race, and doling out painkilling Butazolidin to trainers, with each dose adding to a bill that makes the racetrack vet the most lucrative of veterinary practices. They don’t think about stressed horses attached to hot walkers, grooms living in tack rooms after eighteen-hour days, jockeys sweating, drugging and starving to make weight, gate crews nursing wounds suffered when reluctant horses kicked, pony riders hanging their heads over a favorite horse’s breakdown. They don’t think about the kill pen, where a horse who broke down is taken to be given one last shot, the body left under a blue tarp for hours until the unmarked truck from the rendering plant arrives to take the carcass away. Race fans rarely think about what goes on behind the scenes at a place like Emerald Downs.

"What we do in racing is we take healthy horses and we destroy them," said one trainer, a veteran of horse racing who has become increasingly frustrated with the treatment of racehorses at the track in Auburn.

The Thoroughbred racehorse is a thing of beauty but a freak of selective breeding. A muscular body weighing from 900 to 1,400 pounds is supported by legs so thin you can wrap your hand around one. The Thoroughbred is the fastest land mammal over a racing distance, from four and a-half furlongs (a furlong is an eighth of a mile) to a mile or more. A Thoroughbred can sustain speeds of forty miles per hour, leaving a cheetah panting in the dust. The Quarter Horse is so named for being the fastest over a quarter-mile, but beyond is the domain of the Thoroughbred.

When Thoroughbreds run, be it over the short workout distance of three furlongs, the Kentucky Derby distance of a mile and a quarter or the trying Jockey Club Gold Cup two miles, their legs sustain millions of microfractures, according to Marc Paulhus, former director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States. Paulhus said ordinarily these fractures would heal over a couple weeks of rest, but racehorses, especially the "cheap" claiming horses called "platers" often found at lesser tracks like Emerald Downs, are rarely given the luxury of such rest.

The overall decline in Thoroughbred breeding and the void left in Western Washington by the closure of Longacres race track have depleted the Thoroughbred ranks, leaving racing secretaries scrambling to fill race fields. Long ago criticized for being too remote, Longacres came to occupy prime real estate as Seattle, Renton and Tukwila grew around it. Two years prior to closing, the Alhadeff family sold Longacres to Boeing, which since has developed the land. Longacres, for six decades the center of Thoroughbred racing in Washington, ran its final race on September 21, 1992.

Emerald Downs opened 1,338 days later, on June 20, 1996. In 1989, toward the end of the Longacres era, American mares produced 50,000 Thoroughbred foals. By 1992, the number had dropped to 35,000. In October 1996, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the number of foals in Washington state declined nearly 40 percent between 1989 and 1994. Smaller purses in Washington prompted many owners and trainers to seek the richer prizes offered by tracks in California. There are simply not enough Thoroughbreds to regularly fill the twelve post positions the starting gate at Emerald Downs can accommodate. Three- and four-horse races are not uncommon. The pressure from the racing secretary and other track officials to fill fields leads some trainers to push their horses into the starting gate again, or "run them back," as frequently as once a week.

Extreme measures are taken to get a hurting Thoroughbred to run. The most apparent is the administration of bute – phenylbutazone or Butazolidin – a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, the presence of which in a racehorse must be made public before a race. Bute is hailed by some in the horse world as a miracle drug, much like many consider aspirin to be for humans. Bute is administered by tablet, paste, powder or injection. Bute is prescribed to treat injuries involving bone, joint, tendon and muscle. Complications of long-term bute usage include ulcers in the mouth, stomach and large colon, which can lead to decreased appetite, weight loss, gastrointestinal bleeding and diarrhea. Overdosage can result in kidney damage, edema, in rare cases anemia and death. Bute is by far the most common medication used on horses at Emerald Downs.

The Washington Horse Racing Commission’s Rules of Racing allow five micrograms of bute per milliliter of blood plasma, more than twice the amount allowed by the New York Racing Association. "Bute can’t be administered less than forty-eight hours before racing," a representative of the NYRA said. "Bute is not a factor in racing here."

It is at Emerald Downs. During the track’s 1998 meeting (racing’s term for season), 7,016 of 7,060 starters – 99.4 percent – raced on bute. A "B" next to the horse’s assigned weight in the Daily Racing Form or an "M" next to the weight in the Emerald Downs program means bute (medication), which equals inflammation and pain.

(The first offense for a trainer whose horse tests positive for excess bute is punishable by a fine of $300. The second offense within a 365-day period carries a fine of $750. A third offense would add a sixty-day suspension.)

An "L" next to the "B" or "M" stands for Lasix, a trade name for furosemide, the hallmark of a bleeder. Some racehorses suffer pulmonary hemorrhaging brought on by stress during racing, bleeding from the lungs which pours through the nasal passages. Lasix stems the bleeding, but many trainers believe it also enhances performance. Marc Paulhus said trainers have another reason to administer Lasix: As a diuretic, Lasix dilutes other water-soluble medications, making it a masking agent in the test barn. Like bute, Lasix is prevalent at Emerald Downs, with 83.2 percent of starters (5,879) racing on furosemide.

In 1997 numerous complaints concerning injuries to Emerald Downs’ equine athletes were directed toward the track surface. During the ’97 meeting, 188 starters at Emerald Downs, 2.5 percent, did not finish their races. At Belmont Park in New York, only 27 starters did not finish, .54 percent, during the ’97 meeting. New York’s Saratoga, which occasionally races horses on the hurdle, had 33 DNFs, 1.26 percent.

In 1997 at Emerald Downs, twelve horses were said to have "broke down." Those twelve represent more than the number of breakdowns in 1997 at Belmont Park, Saratoga, Monmouth Park in New Jersey and Laurel Park in Maryland, combined.

After the ’97 meeting Emerald Downs spent nearly a million dollars on surface improvements, and as the 1998 meeting began complaints about the surface subsided. But the injuries have continued. The rate of starters that did not finish at Emerald Downs’ 1998 meeting was 2.9 percent (208).

Statistics for horses injured or killed during morning workouts are not available in Washington.

The failure of track improvements to impact the rate of horses not finishing races should come as no surprise to Dr. George Maylin of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Maylin reported racetrack conditions do not appear to significantly influence the rate of racing injuries. The Cornell study considered the type of track, its dryness, season, temperature, configuration and distance, and concluded none of these factors appears to influence the injury rate.

(Cornell researchers also reported on the benefits of Lasix. A study found furosemide to be of "questionable efficacy" in treating exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. The study concluded that Lasix may enhance performance by reducing exercise-induced bronchospasm – closure of the airway – or by reducing pulmonary edema. Furosemide also causes a racehorse to excrete as much as twenty pounds of urine during the four hours between administration and racing, making the horse lighter.)

Equipoise, also known as Winstrol V or Ganabol, also enhances performance. Equipoise, a controlled substance available only by veterinary prescription, is a steroid derived from stallions’ testosterone that causes steroid rages and alters the cycles of mares. Equipoise may make a horse more aggressive and more challenging to handle, but it also works as a steroidal spur toward more speed and endurance in racing, much like steroids have been shown to do in human athletes. (The potency of Equipoise has made it popular on the black market with human bodybuilders who take it for its physique-enhancing effects.) Racehorse trainers say they use Equipoise to stimulate appetite in horses whose digestive systems have been irritated by the caustic nature of bute and to manage estrous cycles. But, said Paulhus, "That’s a smokescreen."

Trainers inject cortisone, or corticosteroids, into joints, contributing to further bone deterioration. Corticosteroids are among the most powerful anti-inflammatory agents, but act as suppressants of cellular functions associated with immunity and healing. Cortisone injections into and around joints reduce swelling and inflammation, but mask pain and lameness; an injury can be aggravated if the horse is returned to exercise too soon. Prolonged use of corticosteroids can produce arthritis, adrenal insufficiency (since the medication can prompt the adrenal gland to stop making cortisone), and acute laminitis, a disease which strikes the inner structures of the feet. Also known as founder, laminitis has dire consequences, including death.

The legs of a healthy horse should be cool to the touch; warmth is a sign of inflammation and, in the feet, a symptom of laminitis. But trainers take their horses to extremes by icing legs and feet, numbing them to the pain.

Trainers use other methods to cadge Thoroughbreds into racing, including banned drugs, illegal stimulants (a practice known as "hopping"), nerve-deadening surgery, even folk remedies. Unless the horse wins, or performs far out of step with the odds, like a longshot hitting the board or a odds-on favorite finishing way back, said one trainer, a call to the test barn is extremely unlikely.

Race horses often race in pain, and failure to acknowledge their pain sometimes results in death. Drugs mask pain that would otherwise discourage exertion. Oblivious to their condition, injured horses will run until they can run no more. Sometimes the end of a horse’s racing career is subtle, a slowing before the finish line, a slight limp. Other times the end is horrific, as when Go for Wand suffered a nightmarish injury during the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff race at Belmont. Strides before the finish line, Go for Wand snapped her right foreleg and somersaulted. She struggled to her feet and hobbled on three legs toward the winner’s circle. In front of a national television audience and a grandstand filled with 51,000 spectators, she collapsed, bone protruding below her ankle, the hoof crooked grotesquely. As security and track officials gathered around her, Go for Wand was killed by a lethal injection.

During the first weekend of the 1998 meeting at Emerald Downs, April 25th and 26th, seven horses did not finish their races. One threw his rider and finished in a photo for first, but of course, without a rider, his performance didn’t count. The other six may have broken down (suffered catastrophic injury), but you wouldn’t know it from the official results. Track spotters, who analyze each race to comment on the horse’s "trip," or experience and behavior during a race, for the Daily Racing Form and other publications, are reluctant to invoke the grim words "broke down." Instead spotters invoke such euphemisms as "eased" and "distanced." There’s nothing easy about a horse being eased. To say a horse with a broken leg was "eased" is like saying Joe Theisman was "eased" from his pro football career by Lawrence Taylor.

As Joe Withe, the host of Emerald Downs Today – the track’s replay television program – might say, it was a beautiful day for racing. On April 25th, 1998, the track welcomed what may have been its largest crowd since its first opening day, although comparisons are difficult since Emerald Downs does not publicize attendance figures. Several thousand fans watched and wagered on horses most did not realize were sore, reluctant and drugged.

One of those drugged horses was Miranda’s Girl, owned by Jack Porter, trained by Frank Lucarelli, ridden by Frank Gonsalves. Miranda’s Girl was entered in the fourth race on opening day, a claiming race for fillies and mares four years old and upward. The claiming price was $8,000.

Miranda’s Girl got off to a good start and was running in the middle of the pack when a sharp bob of her head indicated something was wrong. Gonsalves knew instantly and pulled on her reins, the rest of the field thundering past. Miranda’s Girl had galloped barely a quarter-mile, had yet to emerge from the backstretch, when something snapped. Gonsalves rode her into the turn slowly, stopping near the gate to the backside, as far from the grandstand as possible.

The horse ambulance, the "meat wagon," motored to life. A large green box pulled behind a tractor, the ambulance is deployed to carry from the track horses who can’t make it on their own, or would do so only with severe discomfort and risk. Miranda’s Girl stood, heeding as horses do the instinct to stay on her feet when faced with fear. One wall of the ambulance lowered to become a ramp. She was led into the box, the ramp became a wall again, and Miranda’s Girl disappeared, the first "vanned off" casualty of the 1998 meeting at Emerald Downs.

Following in the footsteps of Miranda’s Girl were Solnichka, Spanky, Penny’s Chance, Singing Year, Knight Drifter, One Sharp Prospect, Jonathan E Gull, Prime Overtime and Eagle Ize, horses who did not finish races during the first two weekends of racing this year. During that time only two horses raced without bute or Lasix. Of those, one – Ito the Hammer – won.

Mary Ware of the Livestock Protection Association cites estimates regarding the likelihood of a Thoroughbred reaching "retirement," being put out to pasture or to stud. "Of all those horses you see at the racetrack," said Mary, "only two of thirty survive."

Such figures are difficult to verify given the clouded nature of euthanasia at the track. According to Dr. Dan Dahl, state veterinarian for the Washington Horse Racing Commission, there are no established standards for euthanasia at Emerald Downs. The rules do not specify the means of execution, only that "the act of execution shall not take place in view of the public."

Euthanasia usually involves intravenous injection of an anesthetic overdose, often sodium pentobarbital. Less frequently, and less humanely, the fatal injection is Sucostrin, which kills horses by suffocation. Bob Baker, senior investigator for the Humane Society of the United States, said, "The horse’s respiratory system is paralyzed with an injection of Sucostrin so it can’t breathe. This method is quick and looks aesthetically pleasing, but it isn’t as painless, as humane, as using sodium pentobarbital." Only in emergency situations are horses shot as a means of euthanasia, and in most such circumstances the gun is fired by a law enforcement officer.

The decision to euthanize is left to veterinarians, trainers and owners. Thoroughbreds who are unable to race again may be put down and trucked to the rendering plant, or sold at auction to the killers who take them to slaughter.

A tiny percentage of retired Thoroughbreds reach good homes, adopted by rescue groups or purchased at auction by conscientious buyers who keep them from the killers. Converting a racehorse into a pleasure horse can be a daunting task, since Thoroughbreds trained to race function at an extremely high level of energy; they may bear the physical and psychological scars of abusive training methods; racehorses respond to a different set of riding cues and offer an equestrian experience far removed from that of a Quarter Horse, quantifiably the most popular horse in the United States. Emerald Downs has given token recognition to the efforts of Thoroughbred rescuers by including links to several rescue groups on the track’s Web site.

The Quarter Horse is called "America’s horse." The Thoroughbred, with roots in Britain and Arabia, runs in what is known as "the sport of kings." But the sport is mired in an unprecedented recession, with the closures of major tracks in Chicago, Detroit, Atlantic City, and San Antonio, the bankruptcies of Sam Houston Race Park and Retama Park in Texas and Woodlands in Kansas, the shutting down of Playfair in Spokane, the Washington legislature’s propping up of Emerald Downs with tax breaks. The 1990 bankruptcy of Calumet Farm outside Lexington, Kentucky, producer of two Triple Crown winners in Whirlaway and Citation, was the largest farm collapse in Thoroughbred history.

Some observers see these events as signs that the sport might one day go the way of most of the world’s monarchies. Even without the efforts of those sensitive to the destruction wreaked during a day at the races, the legacy of horse racing may one day diminish to the fading fractions, hazy past performances, and foggy "closer looks" of decaying back issues of the Daily Racing Form, which is published during most of Emerald Downs’ meeting just four times a week.

Horse-racing defenders are often heard to say that Thoroughbreds are bred to run, they love to run, they would race each other anyway. While some horses seem to have an innate desire to put a nose in front of the next horse in a race to the end of the pasture, their natural concept of running cannot include lead weights, a whip, a gate, a starting bell, or a photo finish. These elements are added to the Thoroughbred’s running experience by humans, humans who chase a dollar at the expense of a wonderful animal. Many racing fans see little distinction between placing a bet at the track and buying a lottery ticket at a convenience store, or playing blackjack at a tribal casino. They dream of getting something for nothing, but at the racetrack, there is no "nothing." Horses are everything, and they pay with their lives.

Adapted from the “The Destruction of Monarchies” chapter of The Appaloosa and the Palouse



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