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.