Can New Rules Redeem Derby?

(This story aired on Friday, May 1st’s All Things Considered.  You can listen to it here.)

These were the final moments—the final eighth of a mile—of last year’s Derby at Churchill Downs, as told by the track’s announcer.

“As they turn for home, and Big Brown makes a big move, and he takes the lead.  Big Brown is opened up now by 3.  The game filly Eight Belles trying to run him down the final furlong…”

Big Brown took the title.  But seconds later, the runner-up, Eight Belles, took the spotlight. Yards after the finish line, her delicate front ankles snapped and she crumpled to the track.  Veterinarians rushed to her side.  But after only a few minutes they decided her injuries were too severe, too painful.  They euthanized her on the spot and fans were crushed.

Inside the track at Keeneland
Inside the track at Keeneland

It’s a windy, blue-sky afternoon at Keeneland racetrack in Lexington. Horses and riders prepare for some pre-Derby races.  This year, the rules have changed.  Kentucky Horse Racing Commission chief veterinarian Mary Scollay says Eight Belles’ death was a wake up call.

“Personally, it was a very sad event.  At that point I think we recognized how it impacted the public.  And perhaps prior to that we weren’t really aware.”

So race officials made changes—not only minimize the risk to human and equine athletes but also to restore the public’s faith.  They banned steroids.  And a kind of riding crop—or whip—whose crack on the hind quarters stings too much.  The new crops are wider and padded.

Just behind the paddock, Scollay examines a horse for injuries.  She watches the thoroughbred jog toward her.  She’s checking for inflammation. Last year, one culprit could have been toe grabs—which are now banned.  They’re basically like cleats, meant to help a horse grip the track, only they’re attached to the front of the hoof.

“Think of when you’re warming up to go running, and you stretch out your Achilles tendon by standing on something and dropping your heel down.  Well, you wouldn’t want to walk around that way all the time because that puts too much strain on that tissue.”

The starting gate at Keeneland.
The starting gate at Keeneland.

As several panting, shiny horses come off the track after a race, Scollay says many safety programs were already under development in Kentucky.
But Keeneland president Nick Nicholson says Eight Belles’ public demise accelerated one: banning steroids.

“This was something we needed to do for years, and we were blasé about it.  And shame on us.  And I think Eight Belles in many ways caused us to look at things we ought to be doing that we were a little slow in doing.”

In many ways, it also caused a swell of new rules, new safety committees, and even a congressional hearing.

“We’re still the same traditional sport we were a year ago.  But in many ways we’ve improved.  We’ve changed.  And we’ve altered the way that our basic assumptions are made and our decision-making process.”

Organizations like the Humane Society say the racing industry has taken some positive steps.  But they want more, such as examining breeding practices to ensure animals aren’t born with vulnerabilities.  Still, they and industry representatives agree racing is always a risky business.  Not enough, though, to deter the owners of the world’s fastest thoroughbreds…one of which will bring home the Derby’s $2 million dollar purse.