In the wake of the death of the filly Eight Belles as she galloped out after the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), animal-rights organizations are publicly calling for changes—some of them drastic—for the horseracing industry.
The group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, commonly referred to as PETA, has asked the racing industry to “stop racing horses on hard tracks and switch to softer, synthetic surfaces,” and to ban the use of the whip. The group also has called for sanctions against the owner, trainer, and jockey of Eight Belles, who finished second in the Derby.
Eight Belles both broke front ankles while being pulled after the race about a quarter-mile past the finish line. Veteran such as Dr. Larry Bramlage and Larry Jones, trainer of Eight Belles, said they’ve never seen such a breakdown at that point after a race.
PETA officials, who call horse racing “cruelty masquerading as a sport,” say they plan a protest at the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority office near Lexington from noon to 1 p.m. EDT May 6. The group’s letter asking for changes was sent to the KHRA, which issued a lengthy statement May 5.
"We are saddened by the loss of Eight Belles during the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby last Saturday," the KHRA statement said. "Our hearts go out to (owner) Rick Porter, Larry Jones, and every member of the Eight Belles connection. While injuries such as those sustained by Eight Belles are infrequent to Thoroughbred horse racing, it does not lessen the tragedy when they occur. The Kentucky Horse Racing Authorlty has been constantly reviewing safety issues and will continue to monitor research and development in that area.
"The KHRA is concerned about the health and welfare of Thoroughbred racehorses. The KHRA remains actively involved in all safety aspects of Thoroughbred racing. All horses are examined by a KHRA veterinarian prior to racing to ensure they are sound and free of injury on race day. The KHRA has enacted race-day medication rules designed to protect not only the horses, but the jockeys as well.
"The KHRA will remain vigilant in seeking ways to protect all of the athletes involved in horse racing, working with racing jurisdictions from other states, as well as national and intemational organizations. For example, an injury reporting system is now in place nationally, and Kentucky has been providing data since the inception of the system. It is hoped that this data can be used to make recommendations to enhance the safety of racing.
"Likewise, the KHRA will continue investigating injuries occurring during or after a race. In light of the Eight Belles tragedy, the KHRA intends to enhance its protocols in this area. The KHRA will use this information to study and recommend improvements related to the safety of racing.
"People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent the KHRA a letter requesting that certain actions be taken. One statement indicated Thoroughbreds should not be trained or raced before their third birthday. The KHRA has no scientific evidence to support the need to make this change."
Meanwhile, the Humane Society of the United States issued a statement May 5. It followed several national newspaper columns that put horse racing under the microscope after the Derby.
“This industry has not had a rigorous critic to set it in the straight and narrow, and major problems have grown and festered,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society. “It’s time for the Thoroughbred industry to deal with its problems, and if it does not, animal advocates may well decide they can no longer continue to give the industry a free pass.”
Industry officials said they have taken action, notably through research and summit meetings to discuss and improve the health and safety of racehorses. The industry came under similar pressure two years ago when Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), but this time around, critics are much more vocal in calling for action.
Keith Chamblin, vice president of communications for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, acknowledged outcry triggered by the death of Eight Belles. But he said the industry hasn’t turned a deaf ear to criticism.
“It’s gut-wrenching for anyone who loves horse racing,” Chamblin said May 5. “We do have a lot of people that have been touched by this tragic accident, and we feel the pain.”
The NTRA was instrumental in getting Bramlage and Jones on network television the morning of May 5 to discuss the situation. Jones and Bramlage both made a point to personally address the media about two hours after the Derby.
“Nobody has been hurt more by this than Larry Jones and his team,” Chamblin said. “We’re trying to manage this situation the best we can.”
On May 5, Gabriel Saez, who rode Eight Belles, issued a statement through Delaware Park, where he regularly rides for Jones.
"I remain heartbroken over Eight Belles, and I want to let her many fans know that she never gave me the slightest indication before or during the race that there was anything bothering her," Saez said. "All I could sense under me was how eager she was to race. I was so proud of her performance, and of the opportunity to ride her in my first Kentucky Derby, all of which adds to my sadness.
"Riding right now at Delaware Park and being around the horses and other jockeys is good therapy for me, but I hope the media understands that I prefer not to conduct interviews at this time. Please respect my decision while I mourn my personal loss."
After the Derby, Jones said the filly "went into the race the best she had ever done," and that she galloped out well just past the finish line.
The Preakness, second leg of the Triple Crown, will be held May 17 in Maryland. Given Pimlico Race Course is the site where Barbaro broke down, protests by animal-rights groups aren't out of the question, officials indicated.