“Evolution does not necessarily mean progress,” as Thomas Huxley once said.
With the Breeders' Cup only a few weeks away, the Santa Anita track was hoping this championship race would not be marred by another untimely tragedy. But neither hope nor timeliness could help Emtech, a 3-year-old colt who last week, at the famed Santa Anita track, was put down after breaking both front legs coming down the stretch in another gruesome display of decadence in this “Sport of Kings.”
The first time I saw a thoroughbred racehorse was at the Fresno Fairgrounds. Sleek, refined, noble, these worthy stallions were for me, 10-years-old at the time, ideal figures for the ancient stables of kings and counselors — the Equus archetype. I’ve always had a fondness for the breed and, while in college, competed in show jumping aboard an erstwhile track horse named Priest. I was saddened by events in horse racing last spring when 30 thoroughbreds were euthanized as a result of injuries suffered while racing or training at Santa Anita during the spring racing season. As the number of horse deaths increased (to 5.2 per 1,000, the highest rate ever in Southern California) so too did the number of excuses for the high fatality rates. Apologies for reckless trainers and ruthless jockeys, as well as profit maximizing owners and dishonest vets.
A dismal pallor shrouded Santa Anita as patrons and staff watched these events with what seemed macabre detachment. Remarkably, there is no government oversight bureau to address this carnage. Leg fractures are of course deadly for these creatures. And so they were for 30 blood horses last spring in Arcadia.
Still, in a show of confidence, the California Horse Racing Board, despite objections by animal right activists, voted unanimously to retain the now notorious Santa Anita track as this year’s venue for the prestigious and storied Breeders’ Cup Championship horse race. Breeders have a long respected and historic presence in horse racing legend and lore and are praised for their promethean skills in genetic manipulation and the production of champion stock.
The modern racehorse comes to us from a relatively small gene pool, following decades of artificial selection. Practically the entire stock of half a million thoroughbreds can trace their lineage through only 28 individuals. Of these horses, 95 percent can claim a line to but one stallion, the fabled Darley Arabian, sired in 1700.
Today’s thoroughbred is a slimmer, smaller boned and hooved cousin. Experts in genetics suggest it could be precisely these last two “prized” qualities that are contributing factors of the recent spike in injuries and deaths. Simply put, inbred horses break more easily, and when they break, they die.
Racehorse people will recite with alacrity the genetic history of their horses. They still think of “papers” as a latter-day Delphic Oracle of success on track or turf. But realistically, trainers and jockeys in the horse race industry know only 35 percent of the horse’s performance can be attributed to pedigree. Their experience tells them that more than half the horse’s talent comes from non-genetic factors: track, weather, jockey skills, health, training, etc. These non-heritable traits deserve and will repay the attention of trainers and owners more than pedigree ever can, because dead horses can’t be champions, and no championship can justify the wholesale slaughter of these animals.
Gregory Hauss is a former teacher with BCSD. He currently works as a sculptor.