National Columnist

California Chrome's pretty story can't hide sport's ugly side

California Chrome is a win away from horse racing's Triple Crown.  (USATSI)
California Chrome is a win away from horse racing's Triple Crown. (USATSI)

In a few weeks California Chrome will try to finish off the Triple Crown at the Belmont, and that will be exciting and historic, and what could be wrong with a sport that gives us something exciting and historic?

Well, this: When the same sport gives us death and destruction. Cruelty and slaughter. Living animals, some of the most beautiful creatures on Earth, treated as commodities. Because when a commodity is no longer profitable, that commodity is discarded.

Where does this column go from here? To a place the people most firmly entrenched -- on either side -- won't want to be taken: the belief that this is a philosophical debate, not a factual one. Right vs. wrong? That's too easy, too lazy. Horse racing is complicated, an impassioned but impossible issue, as confounding as the riddle about the sound of one hand clapping.

Because horses are very much dying.

And horses are very much treated like royalty.

One happens, but so does the other. And they happen for the same reason: Thoroughbreds are bred to become world-class racers, and the ones that do -- or come close, or offer the promise of producing world-class offspring -- live a better life than most people. They eat. They sleep. They exercise. They have sex. They do it again tomorrow.

The ones that don't become world-class racers? The majority of the roughly 22,000 foals projected to be bred in 2014? They run the risk of being mistreated, abused. Discarded. They aren't all mistreated or abused or discarded. You're on a website run by CBS, not PETA, and fairness matters here more than winning an argument.

So I'm trying to be fair, even as I'm sure where I fall on this debate: Horse-racing is a good idea gone bad, an industry that has its share of reasonable and compassionate fans but one that survives only because the gambling industry is its money-pumping heart. And I'm not about to advocate for horse racing just so gamblers will have a place to chase their fix. Chase it somewhere else. Preferably not on the dog track, either. Don't get me started ...

At the top of the horse-racing food chain, people know their sport is imperfect. And they're working on that. The CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Alex Waldrop, spent time with me on the phone Wednesday and Thursday -- this was too much information to digest in one call -- defending his sport. Not that he was "defensive," if you know what I mean. He wasn't angry or combative. The CEO of the NTRA was defending his sport because he knew he was talking to someone who'd like to see TR -- thoroughbred racing -- eliminated.

Waldrop sighed and got started. He made it clear that the NTRA -- founded in 1998 to promote the sport, encourage its safety and integrity, and lobby for legislation at the federal level -- doesn't want horses mistreated or put at risk, from the time they are bred until they have breathed their last. The NTRA has its most sway at the actual racetrack, and it has tried to make that experience safer by creating the Safety and Integrity Alliance Code of Standards that Waldrop said is adhered to by the country's largest 25 tracks. Veterinarians are at every track. Bio-markers are studied to determine when and why a horse is at risk of a breakdown. Engineers are studying the dirt to provide the safest possible racing surface. Waldrop said certain drugs, including muscle-building anabolic steroids, have been eliminated or severely restricted in the wake of Eight Belles' death at the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

On and on Waldrop went, over the course of two different conversations, laying out just how much the NTRA wants to clean up its sport.

"We don't support the status quo," he said. "We want to see change. There are some folks who oppose it, but not many. You can find many bad things about any business, and [the media] sure do find them in ours. We want to be held accountable, no question, but we're committed to improving the safety and integrity of our sport."

But some things cannot be avoided. Thoroughbreds are bred to be as strong as possible, but as light as possible. That means muscular carriages and legs that are thick and powerful and yet not too thick, lest they be heavier than the horse on their left or right. It's a delicate, dangerous dance that is not done with the intent to endanger horses -- and yet, cannot avoid doing so. The line between a world-class racer and a future breakdown? It's as skinny as Eight Belles' ankles.

But to focus too much energy on the elite horses would be to miss the real heartbreak of horse racing -- what happens to those who never make it to that level. Which is to say, most of them. Waldrop gave me that 22,000-foal estimate for 2014. Somewhere between a third to a half of those will be promising enough to go to auction. What happens to the rest?

Well, it's tricky. Some are sold privately, to ambitious trainers with big dreams and modest means -- the kinds of trainers that would seem more likely than this industry Hall of Famer to be featured in a New York Times expose. Some become companion horses, well-loved pets, to people who like to ride. Some are slaughtered.

Slaughterhouses are gone from the United States but not gone, period, and last year reportedly 150,000 American horses were put in trucks and shipped over the border to be slaughtered for meat, including an estimated 10,000 thoroughbreds. That happens to these big, beautiful horses, and the NTRA knows it, but it's trying to stop it. Waldrop says the NTRA opposes slaughter and told me about the NTRA's Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance that stipulates all those top US tracks in the Safety and Integrity Alliance "must have a relationship with a reputable thoroughbred retirement organization, and they must be actively engaged in finding second homes, second careers for their horses.

"We try to adopt out to a third party, someone who wants a horse at home, maybe as a pet, maybe as a riding companion. Maybe as service horses -- associated with penal institutions, helping prisoners work with horses. It's wonderful therapy for the horse and prisoners. Same with autistic children. Great things can happen there."

Yes they can. And horrible things can happen, too. The horses that do get sent to a slaughterhouse? They die in a way that defies description, if only so you won't be physically ill to read about it. They are shot in the head, not always successfully given the location of the brain and the skittishness of the breed, and then hung by their feet to bleed out after their throat is slit.

Does that happen to most thoroughbreds? No. But it happens to way too many of them. So do breakdowns on the track, as many as 24 per week in 2012, according to the New York Times.

They die because they are bred to be too fast for their own good, and because sometimes the breeding fails -- one way or the other. And so the philosophical question is this: What to do with a species of horse that is bred to produce winners like California Chrome?

Because they don't all win.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
 
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