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[RC] The tragic price of human arrogance - Karen Everhart

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The tragic price of human arrogance

By Paul Moran

Louisville, Ky.

In the subdued regrouping that is for the vanquished the morning after the Kentucky Derby, the death of Eight Belles darkened the mood far beyond Churchill Downs. Hearts were heavy on Sunday morning and tears were shed everywhere.

The filly’s death after a courageous performance when cast in a role for which she was never meant will renew the debates that follow every racing fatality.

It is unusual, but certainly not unheard of for humans to race females against males. Three have won the Derby, the last, Winning Colors, 20 years ago. A filly, Rags to Riches, won the Belmont Stakes last June. It is, however, unnecessary and almost always costly in real flesh and blood terms. There is little to be gained that does not serve the human ego. Fillies do not become appreciably more valuable in the breeding market. A mare will produce no more than about 10 offspring in the course of her lifetime. Calculated risk is based on potential reward, but the reward in sending a female into competition with males is reserved for the human connections and the risk born entirely by the animal.

Until Barbaro broke a hind leg, the ultimate result of which was death, the most celebrated thoroughbred ever to suffer a fatal injury in a race was Ruffian, the undefeated three-year-old of 1975 who shattered a leg in a match race with Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park. Ruffian is widely remembered as the best filly ever to race in the United States. Her unforgettable career is overshadowed in history by the circumstances surrounding her death, which are at the bottom line not unlike those that sent Eight Belles into the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Thirty years ago, there were no discussions about the safety of racetrack or the fragile produce of the American breeding industry. There were no alternative synthetic surfaces, no steroids. There were, however, humans with egos and agendas.

Ruffian was owned by one of the bedrock families in American racing but asking her to run in a match race with a male of Foolish Pleasure’s stature was a grievous error in human judgment. Eight Belles’ owner, Rick Porter, having been infected with Derby fever a year before, when Hard Spun finished second to Street Sense, made the decision to send the filly into the Derby rather than the Kentucky Oaks on Friday. His filly responded with a tremendous effort, giving – literally – everything she had while facing a horse, Big Brown, who was far superior to every horse in the Derby on Saturday. If she had a flaw, it was that her heart was too big for her legs. That, she shared with Ruffian.

For other great fillies who have competed successfully against males, the damage is more subtle.

Genuine Risk, who in 1980, became the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby, ran in all three Triple Crown races. Once retired, she was a dismal failure as a broodmare. Winning Colors, the last female Derby winner, never gave birth to a horse of note. Rags to Riches, the Belmont winner last year, was never the same, raced only once again, was defeated and was recently retired. Even those fillies capable of historic accomplishment in competition with males have paid a price.

Horses are injured in races under the best of circumstances, but misguided, reckless human decision does not qualify as best of circumstance. The finger of blame, in this case, as in that of Ruffian, points toward the owner, a bloated ego and an arrogant disregard to the welfare of a remarkable filly.