How Inequality Hurts

Thoroughbreds and the Rich: A Deadly Embrace

Concentrated wealth is killing the horse-racing industry — and horses, too. We explore the inequality lurking behind the tragic fate of the 2008 Kentucky Derby runner-up.

By Sam Pizzigati

Every year, on Kentucky Derby day, the movers and shakers of the “sport of kings” have a chance to thrill the American people — and recapture horse racing’s once-vaunted glory. This year, they fell a bit short. They didn’t dazzle Americans with the 2008 Kentucky Derby. They appalled them.

The top headlines, after this year’s “run for the roses,” went to the horse that finished second — and then promptly collapsed with two horrific broken ankles. Moments later, veterinarians euthanized the badly injured thoroughbred, the star filly Eight Belles.

Newspaper columnists, on and off the nation’s sports pages, have spent the week since the Derby decrying this latest in a long series of horse-racing fatalities. They’ve been fiercely debating who exactly deserves the blame. The jockey? The trainer? The entire horse-racing industry?

The blame needs to go deeper. Eight Belles actually died from a social malady, and that same malady — economic inequality — is killing off horse racing. Today’s racing scene offers us up an unsettling object lesson on the heavy, even deadly, price we pay when we let staggering quantities of wealth concentrate in the pockets of a precious few.   

In our 21st century United States, we don’t talk much about this concentration. And we don’t much about horse racing either. And both these realities represent a real change in American life. Just a few generations ago, back in the 1930s, Americans cared deeply about the distribution of our national economic pie — and horse racing, too.

In fact, Americans used to follow horse racing more fervently than all other sports save baseball and boxing. Racing’s most famous horses routinely packed racetracks with 60,000 fans at a time. The legendary Seabiscuit could draw 40,000 fans just to a workout.

These glory days today seem medieval history. Most Americans these days only notice racing at Kentucky Derby time. The rest of the year, racetracks limp from day to day with a few thousand aging aficionados bouncing around in largely empty grandstands.

Horse racing’s top players have tried just about everything to bring fans back. They’ve bankrolled sophisticated marketing campaigns, hosted concerts, installed slot machines. Maybe most of all, they’ve prayed for another great horse, another Seabiscuit, that could thrill casual fans and thrust thoroughbred racing back into the limelight.

Their prayers have gone unanswered. No great new horse has captured the public imagination. And no great horse ever again will, suggest analysts like racing writer Andrew Beyer, because the really big money in the thoroughbred industry, ever since the 1980s, has come from breeding horses, not racing them.

Horses retired to stud can command, year in and year out, five- and six-figure fees for every breeding encounter. In 2006, one top sire, Storm Cat, had 111 such encounters — at $500,000 each. A single sire, in other words, can bring in tens of millions of dollars a year in breeding income, far more than the risky business of running races could ever deliver.

A victory in the Kentucky Derby, or any of the other two legs of the “Triple Crown” series that horses run as three-year-olds, used to launch the nation’s best horses into long racing careers. Now these victories launch the winning horses into lucrative breeding deals. Smarty Jones, the 2004 Kentucky Derby winner, retired right after the Triple Crown, after a career that lasted all of nine races.

This new career track for successful horses — win quick, then retire — has, in turn, changed how horse people think about breeding. Years ago, people in the racing industry valued the “soundness” of horses as much as their speed. They bred for both traits. Horses with speed but no durability made no sense to owners who wanted horses strong enough to race year after year.

But today no one needs horses to be particularly durable. They just need them to be fast, speedy enough to do well quickly as a three-year-old — and then retire to stud.

“Because buyers want horses with speed,” explains Andrew Beyer, “breeders have filled the thoroughbred species with the genes of fast but unsound horses.”

The euthanized Eight Belles had just those genes. Her Kentucky Derby-winning grandsire, journalist Edward McClelland pointed out last week, “has a record of fathering flash-in-the pan horses who run blazing times as three-year-olds, then are never seen on the track again.”

To win with fast but fragile horses, trainers have to take short-cuts. Most typically, Beyer observes, trainers pump their flawed horses with “pain-killers and other medications that are forbidden in most other countries.” These drugs “allow infirm horses to achieve success, go to stud and pass on their infirmities to the next generation.”

Racehorses, as a direct result, have become significantly more susceptible to life-threatening injury. On the same racing day that left Eight Belles dead, Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins notes, “15 other horses were injured at 39 North American tracks, nine of them so seriously they had to be carried from tracks in ambulances.”

“We’re seeing more catastrophic injury now, and it’s not going away,” agrees equine surgeon Wayne McIlwraith, the past president of the nation’s top horse doctor group. “There isn’t any question that when we breed for the fastest horse, we lose robustness.”

“We are at a crisis state,” sums up veterinarian Larry Bramlage. “The soundness of the horses has completely gone out the window because we don’t reward it anymore.”

The rewards, instead, flow from stud fees, and these fees have been flowing ever faster over recent decades —as wealth, in society at large, has concentrated.

Racing, to be sure, has always been the “sport of kings.” But the ranks of “kings” — of super-rich investors — have expanded appreciably since the early 1980s, and many of these fabulously wealthy new “kings” have wanted in on the excitement of thoroughbred action. Their dollars have bid up prices at racehorse auctions — and turbocharged the breed-and-profit cycle.

Outstanding horses now win a few races, then get sold for megabucks to deep-pocket syndicates for breeding. To casual racing fans, horse racing has become a blur. Few horses get to stick around long enough to build an appreciable fan following.

In years past, great horses like Seabiscuit did stick around. They built their legends — and enormous public interest — over the course of long, dramatic careers. Seabiscuit himself raced 89 times over six years. Whirlaway, the 1941 Triple Crown winner, raced 60 times. Into the late 1970s, top horses routinely kept racing well after the Triple Crown series. Affirmed, the 1978 Triple Crown champ, raced 29 times.

This year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Big Brown, faces a far different future.

“The Big Brown scenario is almost too easy to predict,” Andrew Beyer wrote last week. “He’ll run brilliantly and be retired in the fall as his owners sell him for stud duty.”

Big Brown’s entire career, Beyer forecasts, will last “no more than nine races.” The fast but fragile Eight Belles didn’t even make it that long.

The racing industry can limit future Eight Belles tragedies, some reformers believe, by replacing dirt racetracks with synthetic surfaces far gentler on the stressed-out ankles of 1,500-pound thoroughbreds. Other reformers are trying to save the horse racing industry by turning tracks into gambling casinos. Income from casino games, the argument goes, can make races more rewarding.

Could solutions like these save horses and horse racing? Synthetic surfaces, the evidence appears to show, do limit the frequency of horse fatalities. But they don’t eliminate them, and, in any case, horses on U.S. tracks survived just fine, a generation ago, on all-dirt tracks.

Casino games at tracks, the evidence also shows, don’t create any new fan interest in racing. They operate instead as a de facto tax on low- and middle-income families that enriches “gaming” corporations and increases the incidence of gambling addiction.

Inequality, in short, is driving what ails thoroughbred racing. More inequality won’t fix it..

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies.

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