05/08/2008 11:00PM

Letters to the Editor


Filly's death shows the need for new approach

A third-generation fan of horse racing, I watched with great sadness last weekend the breakdown of a talented and beautiful filly, Eight Belles.

For more than three decades, I have attended the racetrack and followed the sport on a weekly basis. Each year, I notice fewer and fewer women in attendance. When I ask my women friends why they do not have an interest in the sport, they tell me that they do not like how the horses are treated by owners, trainers, and the industry, and that they cannot bear the sight of witnessing a horse break down and be destroyed.

I do my best to defend the industry and explain how many horse people truly love and care for these fine animals. But some things - like what happened at the Kentucky Derby - are difficult to defend.

When I took note that the trainer and connections of Eight Belles decided to pass the Kentucky Oaks and put this glorious, big-hearted female into the Kentucky Derby to compete with 19 males, my heart became a bit heavy. For hours before the Derby, I prayed not for the horse I backed to win, but for all the horses and filly to have a safe journey.

It was a thrill to see the magnificent Big Brown come home the winner, but that thrill was short-lived when I noticed with horror the filly with the big heart and a pretty name take up.

At what point does the industry show its "soft side" and ban the placement of young fillies in the Triple Crown races and other races that they do not belong in?

If horse racing is to survive, it has to find ways to attract and retain more female fans to the sport - not turn them off with such unfortunate (and quite possibly preventable) tragedies as the one that occurred last weekend.

Maybe it's high time for the horse racing industry to have more women in management who can be sensitive to changes that many people of both genders would like to see happen ontrack and in the industry to assure the survival of this exciting sport.

For me, a key change would be to do more to protect the majestic equines who come along each year and give so much of themselves for the pleasure of their human connections, caretakers, and fans.

Cathy Vee - Huntington Beach, Calif.

Decrying whip use defies rationality

The predictable hue and cry from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals calling for the banishment of whips following the fatal postrace breakdown of the Kentucky Derby runner-up, Eight Belles, vividly illustrates how little this organization understands about Thoroughbred racing in general and whips in particular ("Protest over filly's death," May 8).

To begin with, the filly's demise had nothing whatsoever to do with a whip. She was not flogged to death by her jockey, Gabriel Saez. Nor was he whipping her as she was pulling up after the race. She died as the result of a fall totally unrelated to whip usage.

If PETA thinks racehorses are being abused by whips, it would be utterly aghast at the ensuing carnage of injuries and fatalities - equine and human alike - caused by the enormous increase in racing accidents that would assuredly result if whips were banned.

The whip is much more than an object with which to strike a horse for the expressed purpose of encouraging him to run faster. Indeed, the whip is an extension of a racehorse's steering mechanism, second only to the reins.

Half-ton Thoroughbreds traveling at speeds near 40 mph do not come equipped with power steering. They have minds of their own and are prone to making sudden and erratic moves, to which their riders must have split-second reactions to avoid potential disaster. If anyone believes reins alone can control the path a horse is traveling, watch the head-on replays of the stretch run of any race, anywhere.

What you'll see are jockeys using the tandem of reins and whip to keep their mounts moving in a straight line. When horses tire, they begin to drift inward or outward, and if allowed to keep drifting, invariably will impede the paths of other horses, putting them in potentially great danger. At that point, rein control often is not enough to straighten them.

Without the whip to help them navigate safely, horses would be reduced to objects in a game of four-legged bumper cars, with catastrophic accidents too often the result. PETA should examine the facts more closely before issuing absurd proclamations.

Jay Richards - Las Vegas

Focus of protesters blind to a real plight

It was unfortunate that Eight Belles broke down in the Kentucky Derby, and I for one do not believe that fillies should run against colts.

But People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals should know that racehorses are pampered more than perhaps any other animal. They are exercised, fed, sheltered, and bathed daily, and they live a good life.

What really is important, though, is what happens to them after their careers are over. More retirement farms should be set up to keep horses from going to slaughterhouses once they can no longer run.

If PETA and its ilk want to help racehorses, this is something to work on.

Jerry Pinault - Patchogue, N.Y.

Incident proves the last straw

I have been a racing fan since I was a boy. Through the years, I have introduced and encouraged many people to attend and follow this once-magnificent sport. No more.

Whether it is because of unsafe surfaces, legal and illegal drugs, or the insane breeding practices of the "improvers" of the breed, I will no longer ask friends and acquaintances to witness the type of agonizing scene that followed the Kentucky Derby.

This industry lacks leadership and needs federal regulation. Horsemen are their own worst enemy, and if fundamental changes are not made soon, the entire industry will be put down, and it will be the humane thing to do.

William Boney - Northfield, N.J.

Breeding trend needs turnaround

In the aftermath of the death of Eight Belles, many people are again outraged at the Thoroughbred racing community and its "abuse" of animals for business and entertainment. They fail to see that, while we humans may be entertained and rewarded, the Thoroughbred horse runs to fulfill an innate need to do so.

That innate gift has been compromised not by the racing of these magnificent animals, but by the breeding of them.

The American public, especially, demands speed, and to satisfy this the breeding of the racehorse has become a one-way evolution to fragility and danger. A look at the Dosage figures of this year's 20 Kentucky Derby entrants points this out dramatically. What we need to do is make racing at longer distances and/or on grass more lucrative and exciting. We need to change the breeding industry to one built on stamina and strength, as well as speed.

Anyone who loves these animals and this sport must surely see that we are killing them both if we continue down this evolutionary path. No synthetic track or miracle food or special equipment is going to strengthen the ankles of today's Thoroughbred. Only a breeding program focused on continuing the breed, and the sport, can do that.

I was at Belmont Park the day Ruffian broke down. We have come a long way in the treatment of Thoroughbreds since then, but those strides are being erased by the fragility we are breeding into these beloved horses.

Flora Reekstin - Littleton, Colo.

Young horses need more time to develop

We have got to change the rules in Thoroughbred racing and mandate that horses cannot race until they are 4 or maybe even 5. The bones, ligaments, and tendons of 3-year-old racehorses are not strong enough and fully developed to withstand that kind of pounding. This is what happened to Eight Belles in the Derby - I am sure of it.

I don't care what kind of bloodlines they come from or how good a trainer they have - no one can wave a magic wand and make the bones of a 3-year-old as strong as those of a 5-year-old. Their bones are not hard enough.

Why are we running baby horses? The true test of a Thoroughbred's speed, stamina, and strength is evident in one of the greats of all time: John Henry. His greatest performances did not come until after he turned 5 and continued through age 9.

I do not advocate banning Thoroughbred racing - I am a huge fan and always will be, although it's going to take me some time to get over this one. All I ask is that owners wait one or two more years before racing their horses. Some may say: If we raise the minimum racing age to 4 or 5, is it fair for breeding farms to carry the cost of raising these young horses for the extended time? Perhaps not. Owners need to bear the burden and costs by stretching out and slowing down the training time. There is nothing wrong with taking two years to train a racehorse between ages 2 and 3 but not race them. That means two years of light workouts, breezing, and starting-gate training. What is the hurry?

Let's change the rules so we don't see as many of these kinds of injuries. Who knows - we might even see more Triple Crown winners when 5-year-olds are running instead of the equivalent of teenage boys.

Jeremy Harrigan - Palmer Lake, Colo.

Derby winner came well prepared

First, I would like to extend a heartfelt congratulations to the connections of Big Brown for a dominating Kentucky Derby victory. From the owners to the trainer, they were a class act, displaying sportsmanship every step of the way. The first words out of winning co-owner Michael Iavarone's mouth were those of condolence and sympathy and regret for the connections of Eight Belles. That was a real class act and only helped the soiled image that has cursed horse racing over the last few years.

Big Brown was definitely the best horse in the field, having won all three of his previous races by open lengths. Trainer Richard Dutrow did an excellent job in bringing Big Brown up to this race. (If you live and play horses in New York, you know that his horses can never be counted out.)

But one important, influencing factor in Big Brown's success should not be overlooked. That would be the early training and nurturing of his original trainer, Patrick Reynolds. He received Big Brown in early 2007 and started from scratch, building stamina and muscle, teaching him what he was bred to do. There were setbacks along the way: sore shins and muscles, and the ever-present hoof problems that we all know about. All the while Reynolds kept the horse together because he knew this horse was something special. Then, on Sept. 3, 2007, Big Brown was to make his first lifetime start at Saratoga, going 1 1/16 miles on the turf. The betting public avoided him like the plague, sending him off at 14-1.

After the gate opened, Big Brown had the lead by the quarter pole and was ahead by 10 lengths entering the stretch. He won by 11 1/4 lengths and paid $31.40. Soon after, the colt's owner, Paul Pompa, received a multimillion-dollar offer for this horse. All because of the hard work and horsemanship of Pat Reynolds.

I have been involved in racing since I was a kid. I have owned horses for the last 20 years, and with Pat Reynolds, you can sleep at night, knowing that your horse is in great hands. I would say to any horse owner (or future owner) to give this guy a chance.

Look what it did for Paul Pompa.

Paul A. LaRegina - New Hyde Park, N.Y.

Eight Belles leaves a lasting image

What a magnificent filly Eight Belles was. Brave and courageous, with a heart and mind greater than most, she beat 18 of the boys on horse racing's greatest days.

Larry Jones, her trainer, should be greatly respected for the job he did with her, and telling everyone what a good filly she was.

She will be greatly missed

Blaine M. Panitch - Willowbrook, Ill.