Kentucky Fried Steroids: Probing the Safety of Horse Races

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Although the 2009 Kentucky Derby ended with a thrilling win when the horse Mine That Bird achieved a 50-1 long shot victory, horse racing continues to be marred by the events of last year’s derby when second-place competitor Eight Belles was euthanized after suffering two broken ankles. Unfortunately, not all horses in this year’s derby went unscathed, as shown by various injury reports from ESPN.

Given that injuries were essentially expected this year, and that this year’s Kentucky Derby was by far more successful in avoiding tragedy than last year, the question most be posed: Is horse racing inherently dangerous? The answer to this is about as dangerous as having a ball thrown inches away from your face at 80 to 90 mph or having a group of 250-plus pound men tackle you.

That is to say that the danger is not so much in the sport itself but in its regulation. After all, in Major League Baseball (MLB), players have baseballs pitched at them furiously on a nightly basis and while players get hit occasionally, it is far from the norm.

Since Eight Belles’ death, the horse racing community has attempted to better regulate itself. Yet, a recent statistic noted in one article published by The New York Times cites that three horses suffer a potentially career-ending injury a day. If the same were true for the MLB, then the term prospect may cease to exist, as America’s major league talent pool would be exhausted.

Given how much hot water athletes like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and most recently Manny Ramirez have been in, horse racing’s recent approaches to regulating itself may come as a surprise. In fact, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association only imposed a sports-wide ban on anabolic steroids as of January 2009.

Some may question why anabolic steroids should be banned in horse racing, which is a fair enough question. It is certainly not the jockeys being accused of taking steroids, and what is bad for a man may not necessarily be bad for a horse. Someone in favor of steroids in horse racing may also point out that the Eight Belles tragedy had nothing to do with steroid use.

Although anabolic steroids can be used for medical purposes on horses, just as they can on humans, they can also be abused. Thus, perhaps there is nowhere for this abuse to be more likely than at the upper echelons of a competitive sport, whether it is baseball or horse racing.

As worrisome as steroid use may be, this is only one of the most overt dangers posed to horse racing. For example, as an article in The New York Times pointed out, the health of a horse can often be masked by such drugs as Lasix. Although this drug has curative properties, as it prevents bleeding in a horse’s lungs, by doing this it can hide how healthy or unhealthy a horse actually may be.

Admittedly athletes and owners do not always look on strict regulation favorably. However, horses cannot speak for themselves, and thus it is up to their owners to follow good ethics.

In a sport largely dominated by money, ethics may appear to be a dirty word. However, beyond the fact that a lame horse draws no cash, unethical practices in horse racing affect more than just the purse of the horse owner or the lives of the horses. According to a report released by the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009, between 1998 and 2006 there were 14,000 occupational injuries associated with the horse racing industry. While some of this can no doubt be attributed to the poor regulation of the industry, the responsibility of horse owners should not be overlooked as well.

Given the amount of injuries that occur in the horse racing industry, both in terms of humans and animals, logic may dictate that the sport could be regulated better. Yet, the owners of these animals should be obligated as well to practice safety in a way that benefits all parties involved.

Daniel Johnson is a fourth-year literary journalism and film and media studies double-major. He can be reached at dcjohnso@uci.edu.

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