It's almost Derby Day!
I love the Kentucky Derby. I also hate it, but we'll get to that in a few minutes. Focus on the positive: People get dressed up in huge silly hats, drink drinks they'd avoid at any other time, and are captivated by two minutes of a sport they don't understand, but love anyway. Gorgeous horses, intense action, incredible backstories-- it's all on display at the races! May 5th people-- mark your calendars!
I have a confession: I make my Derby winner pick by how awesome the horse's name is. Here's this year's field of runners (subject to change of course) and my name judgement:
Daddy Long Legs
|Interestingly, there really is a complicated, rule-filled process for naming racehorses.|
Went the Day Well
I'll Have Another
Take Charge Indy
El Padrino (The Godfather)
I think Sabercat is the cooler name, but I also love the way El Padrino flops his big ears slightly out to the side when he runs, so I'm rooting for him:
And you know what? This is a totally legitimate way to pick a winner, because basically, the horses are all the same. No, I'm not talking about the fact that they're all young (three) and have had relatively few races by which to judge their performances. No, I'm not talking about the fact that they're all basically brown except Hansen. I'm talking about the ROT that has seeped into horse racing: inbreeding.
Every single horse on the Derby field is a cousin to his or her competitors. Not just a cousin in the way that many horses of the same breed are distantly related-- we're talking close family ties here.
Go back up and click on each of the horses' names. The links will take you to their pedigrees. What do you notice? The same names, over and over and over again! Northern Dancer, Secretariat, Mr. Prospector, Bold Ruler, Seattle Slew, War Admiral and their immediate descendents were bred and re-bred and then re-bred to those they sired, effectively making the racehorse gene pool as shallow as a Kardashian in front of a camera.
|"I buy myself a gift every year, so this year I bought everything I wanted." -- Kim Kardashian|
The little colored boxes show when a horse has direct inbreeding in their family tree. So on Alpha's pedigree, they show that Northern Dancer is Alpha's great-grandpa AND great-great-great grandpa, and that Native Dancer appears twice as well. However, those little colored boxes just scratch the surface of the truth. Northern Dancer's grandpa was Native Dancer!
Now go look at I'll Have Another's pedigree. Northern Dancer appears three times, and Raise a Native (Native Dancer's son) appears twice.
We've just been following the Native Dancer re-breedings within five generations. Now go look at how many times the other famous horses were re-bred into family lines!
If Thoroughbreds were humans, this is probably what they'd look like:
So why does this happen? Well, of course racehorse breeders want to win, so they breed to winners, and re-breed to winners, hoping the offspring will get the magical gene combination of their illustrious ancestors.
"Winning" in this case just means the ability of young horses to go very fast for a short distance. Breeding purely for disposable speed, not for soundness/health or genetic diversity, has led Thoroughbreds down a dangerous path. As well all know, breeding heavily for certain traits results in dangerous health problems. In Quarter Horses, there's HYPP, in Arabians it's SCID, in German Shepherds it's hip dysplasia, many bulldogs can't give birth naturally because of the big-headed thing, etc etc etc.
Thoroughbreds are being bred to look like greyhounds-- thin bones, long pasterns, skinny bodies, etc. It increases their speed-- but the delicate physique also results in more injuries. Added to the inbreeding and being raced at a young age, Thoroughbreds aren't so much horses anymore as much as they are living toys-- produced to be played with, broken quickly, then thrown away. American racetracks are complicit in this crime, allowing trainers to dope their horses with pain-killers, respiratory boosters and other drugs to maximize their horses' performances. Articles here and here. (By the way, European racetracks are much more strict about the use of drugs, and have far fewer injuries on racetracks.) The end result is thousands of off-track thoroughbreds being euthanized after serious injuries sustained at a young age, or sent to slaughter by age six.
That's why, as much as I love the Kentucky Derby, I also hate it. I hate that we've taken the athleticism a horse is capable of, and reduced our largest event celebrating it to a two-minute sprint. I hate that we're ruining horses, and maybe even the Thoroughbred breed, to win that two-minute sprint. I hate the cruelty competition like this can result in.
I'd like to see racing become a more diversified sport. Let's do away with sprinting-only races; let's add in some jumping, some real distance and some trail obstacles. That would require breeders to breed for more diversified traits, like soundness, endurance, temperament and intelligence. It would also encourage them to wait to race horses until they're old enough to be able to handle that kind of race. Oh wait-- we already have that. The sports are called Endurance Racing, Competitive Trail and Limited Distance-- my favorite equine sports!