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Bred for death?

Tragedy at the Kentucky Derby underscores what may be a genetic problem with U.S. racehorses.

May 06, 2008

As we explore the limits of physical performance, sports trend toward the more extreme, even if it harms rather than enhances the athlete's health. Steroids in baseball, eating disorders in prepubescent gymnasts, whatever it takes to win, until there's a public pushback that threatens the sport. Without industry reform in the near future, it's easy to imagine such a pushback against the biggest athlete of all -- the racehorse.

Saturday's Kentucky Derby showcased the spectacular win of a potential Triple Crown winner, Big Brown, and the fatal ankle injuries of Eight Belles, coming just a year after Barbaro was euthanized from injuries suffered in the 2006 Preakness. These three horses -- along with all the contenders in this year's Derby and an estimated 75% of U.S. thoroughbreds -- have a common ancestor, Native Dancer.

No one knows how many fatal racing injuries occur nationwide, which is troubling all by itself. How can the horse racing industry control the problem without a firm count and an analysis of what the circumstances were in each case? The most prevalent estimate is 1.5 such accidents per 1,000 race starts. That amounts to roughly two per day. As awareness grows, it's unlikely the public, ever more concerned about animal welfare, will calmly accept the death by racing injury of more than 700 horses each year.

Some obvious suspects in the injuries have been dirt tracks, the intensity of training and the breeding for speed: muscular, 1,000-pound bodies coming down on ankles as thin as ours. A story in Friday's Wall Street Journal took an even closer look at breeding, prophetically wondering whether the prevalence of Native Dancer's DNA in today's top racehorses is raising the chances of leg injury. Native Dancer, which died in 1967, was known for heavily muscled legs and a "violent, herky-jerky running style" that left him and many of his progeny with a tendency toward foot problems, the Journal reported. Overbreeding has exacerbated the problem.

For all the anthropomorphic talk about racehorses being "family" and "valiantly" striving to win or overcome injuries, the horses have no choice in this multibillion-dollar industry. The racing world would be smart to put a higher priority on reining in horse injuries and deaths, before public outrage leads to calls for more draconian controls.

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