I have been waiting for several days to write an obituary for Barbaro. He was diagnosed with laminitis last Tuesday. Laminitis is painful, incurable, and almost always ends in the horse being put down. The list of horses euthanized due to laminitis includes some of the best racehorses of the last fifty years, among them Triple Crown winner Affirmed and the horse many considered to have been the best to ever step on a racetrack, Secretariat.
I was going to write about how I love horses. I was going to write about the horse I loved most, and how she broke my heart. And I was going to relay what I had written elsewhere about Barbaro after his Derby win:
I saw the Derby. Unlike other years, I haven’t been following the pre-Derby races — and the papers haven’t been providing much coverage. Heading to the post, the commentators mentioned that it was a strong field with several unbeatens in it.
Barbaro won. By seven lengths, going away. After sitting just off the leaders who were running quite a fast pace.
There were a lot of horses — twenty –this year: the Derby is crowded. And some of those were presumably not really Derby caliber, and perhaps caused other, better, horses some problems.
But I don’t think any horse in that field could have caught Barbaro. Had this been the Belmont, the margin of victory would have been larger — he looked to be just warming up.
It’s too soon to anoint the horse a superstar, but damn, what a performance.
I like him even more because he’s *not* a pretty horse. His neck looks sort of scrawny, his head is not aristocratic but sort of chunky-looking. Then again, as people who’ve read the book or seen the movie know, Seabiscuit wasn’t a pretty horse, either.
Wow. I really hope he’s as good as he seemed on Saturday.
He’s not dead. But maybe he should be. Or should be soon.
His veterinarians and handlers say he’s in no pain, and they have a lot of experience dealing with horses, so I have to take them at their word. His owners say they are doing it out of love for the horse. I hope they are being honest with themselves and us.
Whatever they do, I hope they don’t breed him.
In three years running, the top three-year-old has broken down and ended his racing career. Horses are running fewer races before being retired to stud. Horses are being bred to be Roman candles: burst onto the scene, blaze brightly, and retire while young. They are bred for speed, not stamina, and are trained accordingly.
When a nationally known trainer like Nick Zito says “We’ve debilitated the breed,” you need to pay attention. He knows — and, what’s more, he has a vested interest in the status quo.
Veterinary medicine can save horses that would not have been saved even a relatively few years ago. Increasing acceptance of use of drugs such as Lasix and bute help horses race when maybe they shouldn’t. If a horse runs well, and then breaks down, nothing is to keep him (or her) out of the breeding shed.
The bloodstock advisor at Three Chimneys Farm, where Barbaro’s sire Dynaformer stands at stud, claims that there is nothing wrong with the colt’s soundness, that he was just the victim of bad luck. Perhaps. But I do know this: he was running on an open track, and he didn’t run into another horse, or the rail, he simply took a “misstep.” When he damaged his leg, he didn’t pull a ligament, he shattered his hind leg, requiring a titanium plate and over twenty screws to fix. That may be bad luck; it may be bad genes. Do we want to take a chance?
As humans, we have an ethical responsiblity to breed for soundness in our domesticated animals, since we have usurped the role natural selection plays in determining the gene pool. That we have often sacrificed complete soundness to gain other characteristics in show dogs is bad enough. To breed horses for speed alone, without regard for stamina, increases the likelihood of more breakdowns. More pain. More death.
So save the horse, if you can. He’s a real charmer by all accounts. (His veterinarian reports that he has a positive attitude. How can you tell?) But don’t let him pass down his genes.
We need to be responsible as a species to the species under our care.