05/12/2008 11:00PM

High time to snap this food chain

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In this week's episode of HBO's "Real Sports," host Bryant Gumbel and his crew could not resist the temptation to use the death of Eight Belles as a way to get into their brief but vivid feature on the practice of selling unwanted racehorses for slaughter. Unless the segment was called "Terrible Ways for Horses to Die," one had nothing to do with the other.

If they really wanted to keep it on topic, they could have forgotten Eight Belles for a moment and resurrected the memory of Ferdinand, the winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby who came right back to finish second in the Preakness, while running into the teeth of a speed-biased Pimlico surface that whisked Snow Chief to a four-length victory (third-place Broad Brush was more than six lengths farther back).

Despite his Derby fame, his 1987 Horse of the Year campaign and his abundance of royal blood, Ferdinand met his end in a Japanese slaughterhouse some time in 2002, because he was an economic failure at stud. The subsequent outcry in this country resulted in a flurry of legislative lobbying and the formation of the Ferdinand Fee, a New York program that raises money directly from an owner's starting fee, with funds distributed by Thoroughbred Charities of America.

Then again, the Eight Belles tragedy might just be the kind of public relations hook needed to jump-start positive and permanent change in a business that historically has had serious problems with behavior modification. Perhaps the image of the mortally wounded filly will be burned permanently into racing's collective consciousness. Maybe enough have seen enough.

Liz Harris, executive director of the Thoroughbred Charities of America, announced this week the formation of the Eight Belles Memorial Fund. Donations will go not only toward research into the prevention of catastrophic injuries, but also toward retraining of Thoroughbreds for secondary careers, other than cuisine.

"Approximately 39 percent of our grants already go toward retraining Thoroughbreds," Harris said. "And many of the donations that have come in for Eight Belles were actually cashed winning tickets that people didn't want to spend on themselves."

The "Real Sports" segment should be required viewing for anyone who has ever placed a two-dollar bet. It is also becoming a very old story, with only a few new logistical twists. Slaughterhouses in the United States have been closed, but enough states still allow for the transport and export of horses for slaughter, providing a safe corridor to the abattoirs operated in Canada and Mexico before the meat is exported to Europe and Japan.

Privately funded organizations continue to offer alternatives to the slaughter option, and their volunteers scour the killing pens for Thoroughbreds who should not be there. The "Real Sports" report focused on the Thoroughbred Little Cliff, once a Kentucky Derby hopeful who was miraculously rescued, four owners later and one step from slaughter. This despite the fact that his foal papers indicated he had a permanent home if he ever became unwanted.

Unfortunately, the practice of sending horses off to slaughter is embedded in the darker side of the American agricultural psyche. It also pays a few bucks. Beyond the price of the meat, proponents continue raise all manner of justifications, ranging from the cultural ("Why should we tell people what not to eat?") to economic ("They're just too expensive to keep") to the humane ("Slaughter is better than starving to death").

Even though Thoroughbreds do not represent the largest breed of horses found in slaughter pens (estimates peg them at about 15 percent), the Thoroughbred community is burdened with the highest profile, as well as the mythology that all Thoroughbreds are bred to be champions and cared for as if they were members of the family.

"Real Sports" drove another nail into that fairy tale, with covert footage of a horse at Mountaineer in West Virginia being smacked and prodded into a van bound for a livestock sale, and with graphic video from deep within the bowels of an equine slaughter operation.

The closure of the last U.S. slaughterhouse in 2007 prompted a quick and cynical PR campaign by slaughter apologists. Video of horrific killings at a nonregulated Mexican slaughterhouse started making the rounds, along with dubious claims that parts of the United States were now being overrun with unwanted, starving horses - horse who in the past would have been neatly disposed of in government-inspected slaughter facilities.

Try saying that with a straight face, though, after watching horses being hit numerous times with a captive bolt as they squirm and fight for life - in a U.S. government slaughterhouse - from video taken not long ago. Compare such a practice with a knife in the spine at a Mexican slaughterhouse, or a Canadian bullet between the eyes, then go ahead and call one worse than the other.

This will be a melancholy Preakness on Saturday. Two weeks is not long enough to get over the trauma of Derby Day, even by modern standards of institutional amnesia.

Far more insidious, though, is the attitude given voice by the man identified in the "Real Sports" piece as the trainer of a horse sent off to slaughter. Supposedly, he was not aware of the horse's inevitable fate.

"I have no idea where they went, because I don't want to know," he told reporter Bernard Goldberg. "If you don't know something, it's better, isn't it?"