A conservatory of Ldotter blogs.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Yesterday's Kentucky Derby. . .

. . .has stirred up a heated debate over at Lucianne.com. The article that prompted the debate, by Sally Jenkins, makes good points that, I think, get lost in the stridency of the opening paragraph. Accusing NBC of cowardice for cutting away from the gruesome scene in order to show Big Brown's victory is to essentially accuse all horse racing fans of cowardice for not wanting to see the heartbreaking spectacle of a beautiful animal put to death to spare it the agony of its grotesque injuries. In taking this tack to open an otherwise fair piece, Jenkins, I think, can be fairly accused of taking a moral cheap shot at NBC for allowing viewers to look away from the carnage of a universally lamentable event.
The camera cut away from her, but it should have stayed on her. Eight Belles had run herself half to death yesterday, and now the vets were finishing the job as she lay on her side, her beautiful figure a black hump on the track. Horses don't just fall down like that, you thought as NBC flitted away, cowardlike, from the sickening picture to the more appealing image of the Kentucky Derby victor, Big Brown.

This is not to say that Jenkins's outrage isn't understandable. As an animal lover who doesn't cross over into the woolly-headed world of animal rights activists like PETA, I can fully sympathize with her anger at the suffering of Eight Belles. The very bottom line is that this beautiful animal was made to endure ghastly, intolerable pain for the sake of human amusement. It ought to shock the conscience of anyone with any sense of compassion to know that any sentient creature should endure such agony for even a moment, regardless of the circumstances.

But, there's a further tragedy at play in the way Jenkins approached this article. In immediately putting on the defensive everyone involved in the horse racing industry -- from owner and trainer all the way down to the spectator -- Jenkins has created a fight rather than a thoughtful discussion among well-intentioned people. The owners of these horses truly love them, as Jenkins acknowledges in the article. Yet, when she uses such a loaded term as cowardice to describe NBC's decision to cut its cameras away from the tragedy in order to show Big Brown's victory, she calls into question the morality and humanity of everyone who took part in the event.

That's what's so unfortunate and unfair about that first paragraph. It seems to assume a complete disregard for the welfare of these animals on behalf of the people involved, even though she goes on to acknowledge otherwise later in the piece. But, you can't impute moral turpitude to people simply because they participate in and enjoy a sport in which there are frequent instances of excruciating, career and life-ending injuries to its competitors. While these injuries may be a consequence of the actions of the humans involved, whether they be related to breeding practices, or simply a matter of putting them in competition at too early a stage in their development, no one engages in these practices without any concern for the animal. And no sane person goes to a horse race in the hopes of witnessing such a ghoulish spectacle.

For those of us who are truly troubled by the growing frequency and severity of the injuries in thoroughbred horse racing and want to see more forward-looking practices within the industry, wouldn't it be better to give the practitioners the benefit of a heavy heart and a sense of tragedy at the loss, rather than force them into a position of defiance by portraying them as amoral monsters? If the object is to prevent the suffering of a beautiful and defenseless creature, shouldn't we focus on the creature and the price it paid for our amusement, rather than impugn the humanity of the people who are, after all, just going too far in giving us what we want?

After all, we're not talking about people who dwell in laboratories creating abomination after abomination without regard to the agony endured by their mistakes until they get it right. We're talking about people whose eyes well up at the beauty of the graceful stride of a magnificent, athletic animal doing what it loves to do. These are people who lie awake at night, unable to sleep for the visions of glory that these animals conjure up in their minds. They're people who will cry their hearts out every time they think of what happened to Eight Belles for the rest of their lives.

Give them their due.

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