Friday, May 16, 2008

The 'Sport of Kings', Sacrifices on the Altar of Greed

In many ancient cultures, the sacrifice of a horse to the Gods was the most potent ritual in terms of gaining good fortune, blessings and protection. The horse indeed was the symbol of kingship in some civilisations. Nor did one sacrifice the least valuable or least beautiful animal one possessed. Pains were taken to choose an unblemished, extremely beautiful animal to offer on the altar of the gods.

In fact, horse races and blood sacrifices have an ancient connection. In ancient Roma, on the occasion of the horse-races of 15 October each year, the near-side horse of the winning pair in the chariot race would be taken immediately to the altar and there slaughtered in ritual sacrifice.

The method of sacrifice was as follows: the head of the victim would be sprinkled with wine and sacred cake made from flour and salt. The throat of the animal would be cut and it would be disembowelled and its entrails studied. If the entrails displayed anything that would signify a bad omen, another animal would have to be sacrificed at once.

We live in a society that recoils in horror from the concept of blood sacrifices and yet, we witness the sacrifice of many noble creatures on the altar of Greed.

An article published by the Associated Press today documents a common ongoing practice of 'euthanasia' in Puerto Rico.

More than 400 horses, many in perfect health, are killed each year at a clinic behind the Hipodromo Camerero racetrack in Puerto Rico, according to chief veterinarian Jose Garcia.

'If it doesn't produce, after a while, I give it away or I kill it,' declared Arnoldo Maldonado, a 60 year old who races about five horses each year but whose primary occupation is running a flea market stall in Rio Grande. It is a rather sad commentary on the moral fibre of human beings that they are willing to traffic in living creatures simply on the off-chance that they will produce an enormous profit quickly without being willing to take the responsibility for their ordinary living expenses. If an individual cannot afford to feed and stable horses, he/she shouldn't be allowed to purchase them in the first place.

'You'll get a few owners who get so upset, they just want the horse dead,' said Shakyra Rosario, another veterinarian in Puerto Rico. Furious that the gamble of buying a racehorse, feeding it and housing it has not paid off immediately, many owners simply have the animal put to death after an unsuccessful race.

The chemical injection that kills the horses costs only $20. as opposed to the $750 required per month for food and stable for any horse.

Kaith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society in the U.S. stated that: 'Unofrutnately, the racehorse industry is dealing in an expendable commodity.'

The situation in Puerto Rico may be an obvious example of lack of legal and moral protection for animals but there is major cause to criticise animal breeders in the United States as well where protection of animals does exist to some extent..

Even though there are organisations dedicated to the protection of horses in the U.S., the number of horses who die on the racetrack or as the result of a race in the States is distressing. Not a year passes now without at least one horse being 'euthanised' either on the track or shortly after a major Stakes Race like the Kentucky Derby or one of the Breeder's Cup races. The most recent tragedy was the death of Eight Belles, who won second place at the Kentucky Derby only by breaking two ankles. She was put to death immediately on the track.

There was a time when I loved racing. Important Stakes races were major events on my calendar. Now I find myself watching any major race with dread, fearful that yet another noble animal will be put to death at the end of it.

I was at Belmont when 'Go For Wand' broke a foreleg in the Distaff in the 1990 Breeder's Cup Race. She was killed there on the track, a modern sacrifice to the multi-billion dollar enterprise known as thoroughbreed racing. I cried then and tears come to my eyes even now when I remember that awful moment when the horse went down.

She is buried at Belmont and there now is a 'Go for Wand' Stakes Race, a memorial to her, but it would be far better if an organisation had been founded to combat the sort of extreme breeding practices that produce thoroughbreeds that cannot survive a quick run round a track!

And yes, there are those who claim that a 'girl simply can't do it' the way a guy can... that fillies shouldn't be allowed to race alongside males, but it is not only fillies who have given their lives in the pursuit of their owners' ambitions. There are plenty of males who have been euthanised after suffering similar injuries.

I submit that death is not a justiable risk in a sport that traditionally is equated with grace, beauty and nobility. Nor are these injuries truly 'accidental'. The fact of the matter is that racehorses increasingly have been bred for speed rather than sturdiness. As the breeding becomes more extreme, they are less able to survive the trauma that any race exerts on their bodies.

In the same way, breeders of purebred dogs and cats have ignored the comfort levels and general health of their animals in favour of producing breeds that are more extreme in traits that represent the specific 'breed'. For example, Himalayans no longer can breathe properly because of a specialisation in breeding that favours a look that flattens the nose. Other breeds suffer from hereditary kidney or heart conditions simply because health has been ignored in favour of extreme physical traits that win prizes at shows and have been allowed to define the breed.

For those who respond to hard facts and statistics, the Equine Racing Injury Reporting System computed a rate of 1.6 fatalities in every 1000 starts. Other studies have shown identical results. Using this figure, every horse has a 1 in 624 chance of DYING in each race. Given the number of races in the United States and Canada in a given year, that would be two deaths per day resulting from an actual race! Untold more die in training. A study in Japan documented the fact that far more horses die from fractures during training than in actual races.

These are grim statistics and the cause is selective breeding. Every thoroughbred is descended from one of three stallions: the Darly Arabian, the Godolphin and the Byerly Turk, brought to England towards the end of the 18th century and bred to mares under the patronage of Charles II. A descendant of the Darley Arabian, bred by a son of George II was born during a solar eclipse in 1764 and named Eclipse. As an undefeated champion on the courses, he sired 344 winners and his bloodline accounts for 95% of all thoroughbreds alive today.

Nothing in thoroughbred breeding is left to chance and there is no doubt that speed rather than strength is the ultimate goal. Longevity is irrelevant and in fact sometimes is considered a liability.

If horses cannot run safely at the speeds required of them, they need to be bred for more strength and less speed. It is outrageous to allow a trend that maximises fragility in the interest of greater speed. It obviously is less than humane to kill a horse simply because he/she lost a race but it really is no more humane to breed horses that are in danger of losing their lives each time they run a Stakes race.

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