06 May, 2008

This Is Ridiculous

I didn't intend to write another damned word about Eight Belles. She ran. She died. Shit happens in horse racing. Jockeys die, horses die, people mourn and the sport goes on despite PETA's bitching.

But with Eight Belles, some people are turning a tragedy into a travesty, while others are painfully confused about the reality of equine medicine.

PETA is demanding the suspension of Eight Belles's jockey, who couldn't have done a damned thing. He wasn't pushing her: the race was over, they were in that phase where they're easing off, slowing from gallop to canter, and I'm sure the last thing he expected was to hear his girl's legs break:

Saez said he had felt something go wrong not too long after he crossed the finish line, 4 ¾ lengths behind Big Brown, the winner.

“I tried to get her to stop,” he said. “I tried to get her to stop, but she wouldn’t stop. She just dropped down.”

The veteranarian on-call at the track that day, Dr. Larry Bramlage, didn't see any cause for concern as the race ended:

Bramlage said Eight Belles appeared to be “galloping out fine.”

“It was something I wouldn’t have even considered would have happened,” he said. “I would have had no clue that anything was going wrong.”

So, PETA, back the fuck off Saez.

As for the wags who are making metaphors about Hillary and Eight Belles, listen to Digby:

I realize that a lot of people find the symbolism of this both exciting and hilarious, since Clinton said "bet on the filly." And maybe the metaphor will be perfectly fulfilled next week as Clinton comes in second and breaks both her metaphorical ankles and is metaphorically euthanized right on the metaphorical track, but the classy thing to do would be to leave it alone. It's sickening on many levels.

Resist the impulse to be cute about this. The horse died. You'll like yourself better for it.

Exactly so. Or, if "resist the impulse to be cute about this" isn't clear enough: shut the fuck up.

Finally, some whispers have come up that Eight Belles was euthanized because she's a girl. John Lynch raises a valid question for someone who hasn't the slightest clue about injuries in horses and the racing industry as a whole, but let me just put a stop to that line of thinking right fucking now.

Eight Belles wasn't euthanized on the track because her owners decided she wouldn't be worth the money to treat her. Decisions like that aren't made in less than five minutes. The reason you saw such a rapid decision to euthanize her was because the vets know a horse just doesn't come back from catastrophic injuries like that. It would have been bad enough if she'd had enough legs to stand on:

Why is a broken leg so dangerous for a horse?

There's a high risk of infection, and the horse may not sit still long enough for the bone to heal. Infections are most likely when the animal suffers a compound fracture, in which the bones tear through the skin of the leg. In this case, dirt from the track will grind into and contaminate the wound. To make matters worse, there isn't much blood circulation in the lower part of a horse's leg. (There's very little muscle, either.) A nasty break below the knee could easily destroy these fragile vessels and deprive the animal of its full immune response at the site of the injury.

The article, written after Barbaro's devastating fracture, goes on to enumerate the rest of the complications: if a horse keeps running after the injury (as Eight Belles did, despite her jockey's best efforts to pull her up), sharp bone fragments wreak havoc in the soft tissues. The massive amounts of antibiotics needed to stave off infection can lead to horrific intestinal complications. Then there's the good possibility of ulcers from the painkillers. The horse could reinjure itself or even cause new injuries as it thrashes in its sling. And for those wags who want to talk about "well, why can't they just keep her in bed?" you can't do that with a horse: "A horse that's unable to stand will develop nasty sores and can be expected to die a slow and painful death."

All of this is to say nothing of the laminitis, which is yet another painful horror.

And that sunny outcome is with a single break, when the horse can support itself on its remaining three legs with perhaps a little help from a sling. Barbaro didn't make it. A lot of them don't. With two broken legs, even if Eight Belles had been a colt worth $1 billion, the decision to euthanize would have come just as swiftly.

But we don't have to speculate on what would have happened had Eight Belles been a boy. We already have a case study in Ruffian, another filly who broke one leg:

Ruffian was pulled up; her off-fore sesamoid bones were shattered. Baeza and Foolish Pleasure were suddenly alone, and the jockey eased the Derby winner to a canter to complete the course, as soon as he realized what had happened.

The once-cheering crowd now watched in stricken silence as the ambulance sped toward the filly and veterinarians attended to her. Heroic efforts were made to save Ruffian, although the early prognosis gave her only a 10% chance of survival. A pneumatic cast was applied before she was loaded onto the ambulance and another was applied in the barn area. A team of four vets and an orthopaedic surgeon laboured for a total of 12 hours to accomplish the impossible. During the operation, Ruffian was twice revived after she had stopped breathing. Finally the surgery was done.

However, the worst was yet to come. The anesthesia wore off and the filly awoke, disoriented, confused, and in pain. She thrashed about wildly despite the attempts of several attendants to hold her down. She fractured the new cast and caused even greater damage to the fetlock. Knowing that she could not endure further surgery, the veterinarians put her mercifully to sleep.

Let's have no more talk of gender bias, shall we?

No one, no one, likes it when this happens. The people who raise and race these horses are shattered every time they lose one. No one wants this outcome. I know a lot of outsiders look at the money and the betting and the business and think that's all there is, but let's let the trainers speak:

It was a somber day for trainer Larry Jones, who moved his base to Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton just this year.

"These things are our family. They've given us everything they have. We've given everything we have. They put their lives on the damn line here and she was glad to do it," Jones said.


"You love your horses. You're out here seven days a week, so I tend to fall in love with my horses," said trainer Steve Hinds.

Injuries happen. Deaths happen. It's not just the horses, either: plenty of jockeys suffer devastating injuries and die. Work goes on in the racing industry to minimize the risks - GrrlScientist has a fantastic post up about that - but those risks will never be eliminated completely.

If some folks want to use Eight Belles's death to bring about needed improvements, fine. Let's do it. Let's make racing safer.

But don't you dare exploit her for cheap political points. Don't you dare place blame where it doesn't belong. Don't make a mockery out of that beautiful little girl.

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