This weekend, the American tradition of putting on ridiculously large hats and drinking mint juleps while the “most exciting two minutes in sports” happens returns.
According to their website, the Kentucky Derby began in 1872, when Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of William Clark – of the famed pair Lewis and Clark – traveled to Europe. While there, Clark attended the Epsom Derby in England, a well-known horse race run since 1780, and also fraternized with the French Jockey Club, a group that developed another popular horse race, the Grand Prix de Paris Longchamps. Clark was inspired by his travels and experiences, and, upon his return, was determined to create a spectacle horse racing event in the States. With the help of his uncle’s John & Henry Churchill, who gifted Clark the necessary land to develop a racetrack, and by formally organizing a group of local race fans to be named the Louisville Jockey Club, Clark and his new club raised funds to build a permanent racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. On May 17th, 1875, the racetrack opened its gates and the Louisville Jockey Club sponsored the very first Kentucky Derby.
So this race has a long history and is very much rooted in the tradition and identity of Louisville.
Unfortunately, like most animal-related things that are rooted in history, the Kentucky Derby is also rife with animal abuse. According to the World Animal Foundation, over 1,000 race horses die an early death each year due to constant drug cocktails, forcing horses to push through injury and racing horses too soon or too long. Drugs include hypothyroidism to speed up their metabolisms, Lasix which stops pulmonary bleeding in the horses’ lungs during intense exercise, and liquid nitrogen to increase blood flow in sore muscles. NBC News did an in-depth story from a racetrack veterinarian about the abuses and shows a severe neglect for these poor creatures.
Famous examples of early deaths include Eight Belles, who died on the track at the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Nehro, the second place finisher at the 2011 Kentucky Derby, was forced to run and train on extremely painful, deteriorating hooves—one of which was held together with superglue. Nehro died at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day in 2013. And according to a report in USA Today, “A 5-year-old horse named Soul House collapsed and died shortly after finishing seventh of 10 horses at Belmont Park. One day before that, a 5-year-old horse named Icprideicpower died at Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack in upstate New York after a training session.”
One would think after years of abuse and being forced to race while drugged to the point of not feeling any injury, a race horse who has survived through the horrid environment would be allowed a well-deserved peaceful retirement. Sadly, thousands of “retired” race horses are shipped to Canada or Mexico each year after they are no longer useful to be slaughtered for horse meat. Even Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand was slaughtered in 2002 when he could not longer be used for breeding – he was only nineteen.
All told, the Kentucky Derby is a disgusting display of animal abuse and horse neglect. Like bullfighting, it is an historical practice that needs to be phased out in favor of a more friendly, compassionate tradition. Join me in protesting this draconian event and spend the day doing something more positive – like volunteer at a local rescue that takes in discarded horses (in Fort Collins, we have Shiloh Acres Horse Ranch). Or if horses aren’t your thing, see if your community is doing something fun for May the Fourth (Fort Collins has the Kessel Run!). Feel free to wear a silly hat and drink a mint julep while you do! 😉