Eight Belles died on the altar of the quick buck. About that, even the most stalwart horse-racing fans can agree. Andrew Beyer, dean of America's racing writers, explained the death of the Kentucky Derby runner-up by noting that thoroughbreds are, in fact, overbred. They are no longer created with robust careers in mind; their life goal is a couple of quick wins in Triple Crown races, followed by retirement to a stud farm. "Modern commercial breeders produce horses in order to sell them, and if those horses are unsound, they become somebody else's problem," Beyer wrote for the Washington Post. "Because buyers want horses with speed, breeders have filled the thoroughbred species with the genes of fast but unsound horses."
The sad sight of this beautiful animal collapsing after her courageous effort, her life ended by two shattered front ankles, called up memories of Barbaro, that brilliant colt ruined by a broken leg at the Preakness two years ago. Inevitably, people asked if some moral rot has crept into the sport of kings, wherein immature horses are urged to overextend themselves on legs that snap like icicles.
But it's only fair to point out that breeders aren't a solitary priesthood. They flip horses the way real estate speculators once flipped condos. With dollar signs in their eyes, they savor 2- and 3-year-old horses, exactly the way the fashion industry looks at long-stemmed 14-year-old girls, exactly the way the celebrity culture gazes on Britney and Lindsay and Miley, exactly the way shoe-company reps scrutinize boys on basketball courts. Horses, fashion models, teen stars--they're all produced for maximum profit.
Every market needs buyers as well as sellers, and that's where the rest of us come in. If horse breeders have stopped raising animals that are sound for the long run, it's because the audience for mature racehorses--like the audience for maturity in general--has vanished. Seabiscuit, over his 89-race career, drew huge crowds season after season. By contrast, this year's Derby winner, Big Brown, will command the public eye for two months at best, retiring after the Belmont Stakes in June. Provided he lives that long.