“Failure is the most often heard expression in Hungary today — failure, mistake, pessimism. When even a horse is able to make a miracle from nowhere, it’s a sign of hope that we can get out from the desperate situation we are now in.”
That’s Victor Orban, leader of Hungary’s Fidesz Party, talking about Overdose, the race horse that’s captured the beleagured Hungarian imagination. Overdose’s owner purchased him as an afterthought–for the meager price of $3,500–and despite being, in his trainer’s words “short” and “kind of ugly,” the horse has since gone on to win 12 races in 12 starts. In the process he’s come to be known as the “Hungarian Seabiscuit.” For a country facing a particularly grim economic future, Overdose has become a galvanizing force:
There is a clear patriotic tilt to the horse’s reception. He rode out Sunday with an honor guard of six flag-bearing riders dressed as Hussars, the famous Hungarian light cavalry, as tens of thousands screamed.
“For us Hungarians, it’s a big deal,” said Livia Nagy, 23, one of the thousands who came out for the race. “Overdose is something we can be proud of.”
Rick Dutrow, trainer of Big Brown, has once again been suspended for doping horses. What’s particularly galling is Dutrow’s recidivism on this front: this marks the 19th time since 2000 that Dutrow has been cited for a drug violation.
In a revealing Boston Globe profile from early this month, T.D. Thornton reported that Dutrow’s infractions ranged …
from comparably benign violations for overages of legal medications Phenylbutazone and Lasix, to more alarming charges of using Mepivacaine, an anesthetic that can be used to make sore horses feel no pain. In addition to $20,000 in drug fines, Dutrow racked up a $5,000 penalty for providing misleading information to authorities about a workout, and was slapped with a $25,000 fine last year for having contact with his stable while he was supposed to be serving a suspension.
He’s not contrite, he’s not concerned with the welfare of his thoroughbreds, and he’s shown no capacity for change. Horse racing is a sport badly in need of sweeping reform, and keeping around a selfish manipulator like Dutrow is thoroughly inimical to that goal. Given Dutrow’s history, why is he even allowed near a horse?
Consider this a promising first step.
Michael Iavarone, the man behind IEAH Stables, which counts Big Brown among its more than 50 thoroughbreds, has announced that his horses will be off their drug regimens by October. The hope is that other stables will follow suit and begin to rid the sport of steroids and other harmful pre-race drugs.
While this is a self-evidently good thing, forgive me if this doesn’t strike me as a moral awakening on the part of Iavarone. Rather, I imagine it’s some sort of preemptive tidying up in response to Congress’ growing interest in the sport.
No matter: The point is to remake horse racing into something that resembles a humane endeavor, which presently it manifestly is not. Again, it’s a promising first step. But as I’ve written before, the uniform or at least widespread use of synthetic track surfaces and taking measures to prevent the running of injured horses are also necessary. There’s more to be done.
As a general rule, I don’t approve of governmental meddling in sports, so long as the issue at hand isn’t one of genuine public interest. With that said, a part of me is gratified that Congress–overstepping its mandate or not–is scrutinizing the horse-racing industry.
I approach this issue as someone for whom animal welfare is a cherished cause. So the fact that as many as 800 North American thoroughbreds die on the race track each year troubles me quite a bit. Change, sweeping change, is needed.
A cousin of mine is a large-animal veterinarian, and she’s received commendations for her equine-rescue work. So I asked her recently whether she thought horse racing was inhumane. Her answer surprised me: “No,” she said. “Horses love to run.”
She’s right, of course: horses do love to run. And run they should. But what we have now is an endeavor that’s far outside the ordinary course of nature. Prior to a race, horses are pumped up with steroids, pain-masking medications, anti-inflammatory drugs, drugs that control bleeding in the lungs–anything to make the horse run faster and keep her going when she should be resting and convalescing. Predictably enough, the injuries, often fatal, follow.
Of course, if those horses happen to survive their racing years, then, well, even winning the Kentucky Derby won’t necessarily keep them out of a Japanese slaughter house.
So clean up the sport. Rid it of the drugs, impose stiff penalties for racing injured horses, and institute the uniform application of synthetic tracks. Then it’ll be something as natural as the oats-and-hay diet: horses running.