I have spent the last 24 hours speaking to multiple vets, lay-up farms, volunteers, stall managers and trainers about killing a famous racehorse. It is not the day I had picked out for myself.
A stakes winner and Preakness contender on three legs, with nobody to even spend the money on an X-ray to find out what the problem was, sat unknowing at the other end of my decision. Sometimes the weight of that can knock you flat down, sobbing into your pillow.
It is, as you can assume, as gut-wrenching a conversation as one could have—even for a horse I’ve never met, never laid eyes on, and had not owned for even 10 minutes. Truth be told, I find having these discussions even more disturbing with horses I’ve never met than with those I’ve known and loved. At least with the horses I have known, they’ve been treated with kindness, they’ve been fed carrots, and they’ve been loved. For some reason, this makes a decision a little bit easier.
We’ve had to euthanize lots of horses—when you rehabilitate injured racehorses in your spare time, it very sadly comes with the territory, as any group like mine can tell you. Catastrophic injuries, the odd colic and EPM cases are bound to happen when you take in more than 100 Thoroughbreds a year. As the owners and the people ultimately responsible for their happiness, sometimes you have to make those decisions.
The very worst though, are the cases where you are euthanizing a stunning, kind, forgiving, young animal because some combination of owner, vet and trainer decided to inject steroids into a joint to hide a small, manifesting problem rather than treating it, which allowed it to get worse. They make the active decision to ignore the warning signs of filling in a joint or “slight offness” and removing a small chip, or resting a minor fracture, and choose instead to mask the pain.
A small issue becomes a big, chronic one pretty darn fast when treated this way. The fact that people rely on the Thoroughbred stoicism to keep running and bringing home a paycheck makes me violent, as it would anybody who has loved a Thoroughbred. They will do what you ask of them, and they will do it despite the fact that they shouldn’t. It’s the famous Thoroughbred heart.
Just One More Race
Last year I got a call from a trainer who donates horses regularly to the program when they are non-competitive or come up with a little injury. He had a horse running in the claiming ranks who was bringing home a paycheck every time out—some days upwards of $20,000. The horse had come home from her last few races with some filling in an ankle, and it was discovered that she had arthritis forming in the joint. She was rested, injected with corticosteroids and run again. She brought home another paycheck.
This was the pivotal moment that separates the wheat from the chaff in the race world—this trainer called me and asked if we could take her, even though she was still running so well. The owner was pressuring him to inject the horse and run her again, and he knew that if he continued on this path, she would break down on the track or be used up so badly she would never have another career. She brought home nearly $10,000 with the simple injection—and no doubt she would bring home money each time they tapped (injected) and ran her.
For one very small, embarrassing moment, I understood why they did it. For me, and for most of the readers here, I’m imagining that “horse first” is the only way. But for just a moment, I got it—the allure of money. It’s just too easy. Thankfully for me and my ability to look at myself in the mirror, it was just a moment, and my conscience kicked in and said that we would absolutely take the horse and rest her and find her a home and banished such garbage from my brain.
Ocean (as we called her) ran 35 races before she arrived in our lush field of knee-high grass to recuperate. Thirty-six could have damaged her to the point that she would not heal with rest, or worse, it could have caused her to take a tragic step and break a leg, and kill herself or her jockey. Thankfully she was protected by the trainer who worked with her every day and knew the consequences of such actions.
Hey Byrn, the 2008 Holy Bull Stakes winner, Preakness contender, winner of just short of $340,000, and the subject of most of my last 24 hours of activity, ran that 36th race. I assure you he is not in any position to stand in a field of grass for the rest of his life. His fate is far, far more uncertain as his ankle actively collapses on itself.
I have met the most fantastic people on the racetrack. Most trainers are amazing, compassionate horse lovers who put the welfare of their charges so far above their own, it’s nearly embarrassing. They love nothing more than to show off their animals to passersby—shining with the effort of full-time attention and pampering. Their horses are happy, their ears are pricked, and they often are so spoiled that they act visibly offended when your hands fail to produce a carrot or peppermint. I love dispelling the myth that racehorses are mistreated as a whole, and in fact the care of my own animals (not too shabby if I say so myself!) pales in comparison to what a majority of horses at the racetrack are used to.
That said, racing is not unique in that, as in any horse industry, there are the people who don’t care. I am thankful that the number of these monsters is significantly less than the good guys, and I try to remember that on days like this.
The Changes We Need
I find it almost poetic that Hey Byrn was participating in the same Triple Crown races that sparked the 2008 Congressional hearings to “encourage” the Thoroughbred industry to protect its animals and protect the betting public by setting up a central governing body and cleaning up rampant drug use. You may remember Big Brown and trainer Rick Dutrow in the center of the anabolic steroid issue, and the public outcry that followed. Individual racing jurisdictions went on to ban anabolic steroids, but as I testified at that same hearing, did nothing to curb the use of the drugs that were actually causing all of the lasting issues. Here we are three years later, and I am still putting down horses with ravaged joints because nothing has been done.
If I were queen of the universe, or at least queen of the non-existent racing governing body, I would make it so that these people were no longer able to cripple horses in this manner—or any manner! As a horseman, I understand that “stuff happens,” and a horse can have a catastrophic, career or even life-ending injury with the best of care. But what I would stop, as queen, is the preventable damage caused by the conscious decisions by owners, trainers and veterinarians by repeated injections into a compromised joint for the sole purpose of masking injury, rather than therapeutically treating it. Joint injections certainly have their place as a therapeutic treatment, that’s not the issue here—blatant misuse of medication is the issue. That’s the ringer, isn’t it? These horses are injured over time, with the help of veterinarians.
I would stop this in two ways: First, amend the drug rules in each state to make it illegal to inject a joint with corticosteroids less than seven days out from race day. (Eliminating it 30 days out would be even better, but tough to test with today’s testing strategies.) The Pennsylvania Racing Commission has already put this in place. It would curb the masking ability of a therapeutic drug. Horses who were too unsound to run without injections 24 hours out would not make it to post parade.
The second thing I would do is change the claiming race system to stop rewarding the people who want to dump lame horses. The way things work now, if someone claims a horse during a race, they own that horse the minute the starting gate opens. They own that horse if it breaks a leg, if it wins, or if it’s been abused by joint injections, or needs a surgery, or can’t breathe. Claiming needs to be changed to void claims for unsound or misrepresented horses so it can no longer be used as racing’s trash can. Owners will remain responsible for horses they injure and not be able to dump them on other people and get paid for it in the process.
I’m not queen, unfortunately, but I do have a voice, and I do have inspiration with every horse I have to watch crumble to the ground in a dead heap because people let them down repeatedly.
Thirty-five races and a responsible trainer means that Ocean gets to live out her life happily having babies and going for trail rides. Thirty-six races with indifferent trainers, and Hey Byrn will likely not have that luxury.
Allie Conrad is executive director of CANTER Mid Atlantic, which provides retiring Thoroughbred racehorses with opportunities for new careers. Allie founded the organization in 1999 at Charles Town Racetrack (W.V.) after purchasing her beloved Thoroughbred Phinny, who had more than 60 starts at Charles Town, at the infamous New Holland Auction in Pennsylvania. A resident of Southern Pines, N.C., Allie also works full time as a project manager for a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. You can learn more about CANTER Mid Atlantic on their website, www.canterusa.org/midatlantic.