Hallandale, Fla., March 20,2009--Admittedly, I had a knee-jerk reaction when I first read William Rhoden’s piece on the state of the racing industry on the New York Times website yesterday that began: “The death of Eight Belles at last year’s Kentucky Derby…”

My negative inclination was because reporters such as Rhoden jump in an out of thoroughbred racing coverage during the Triple Crown of spring and early summer and could care less bout it the rest of the year.

This is their prerogative, and nobody ever said life was fair.

Given its timing, I could have dismissed the commentary as Rhoden being opportunistic, again injecting himself into the Kentucky Derby storyline as he did last year when invited to appear on national television to lend perspective to the Eight Belles tragedy and talked about the indefensible practice of racing thoroughbreds.

In the piece Rhoden asks: “Are breakdowns the outgrowth of a meat-grinder industry, or evidence of a horse population spread too thin?”

On an intellectual level, this is akin to asking “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

Sadly, however, Rhoden’s question needed asking no matter how negative the tone and I have too much respect for Rhoden as a reporter to question his motives, even if there appears to be an agenda at work, especially in light of the season.

Rhoden’s story talked about the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection hearing last June that on its face wanted to help remedy racing’s problems: the on-track death of horses, over breeding, and over-medicating.

All the Subcommittee did was to effectively put the industry on notice--a good thing--that it must clean its own house over the government will clean it for them. The legislators didn’t seem to be grandstanding, at least not in the same fashion as is being seen today in the AIG scenario.

While it’s true the industry remains culpable with respect to over breeding and over medicating--even after making substantive changes subsequent to last year’s Derby events--the element that seemed disingenuous was there was no recognition of the fact that accidents can happen.

By definition, wrongdoing is determined by intent. Do reasonable people believe that the intent is for horsemen and women to inflict harm on their animals? Indeed, isn’t the opposite true?

Rhoden is right about this: The Thoroughbred Safety Committee and Racing Medication and Testing Consortium has yet to address the practice of giving racehorses the legal drugs that allow them to perform when not physically at one hundred percent.

He rightfully acknowledged, too, that spokespersons for the American Association of Equine Practitioners believe the industry needs to rethink the use of legal drugs for racing and training since they can mask the finding of veterinary inspection, that medicines should be confined for the treatment of diagnosed disease.

Rhoden made the same point that’s always made whenever horses die from something other than natural causes, that human athletes who suffer serious injury or worse voluntarily do so while no one speaks up for horses who cannot speak for themselves.

Actually, there are hundreds of people within the industry that speak for the horses, caring for them while they race and after their racing days are finished, ignoring the fact that racing is the reason they were born in the first place and actually enjoy running.

Horses were bred to carry the early settlers over the most rugged terrain to settle the West. Nobody believed that to be cruel or unusual. Animals have been serving man from the beginning and never was that somehow considered immoral.

Beyond being bred for commerce, they still serve the general public by helping to preserve the green space that enables the planet to survive--and that’s not a stretch.

I agree with Rhoden that watching horses get injured and die is unusual punishment. But the act of racing is not cruel in and of itself. Only the practices that keep them racing unnaturally are, and need to be addressed.

Progress up until the Eight Belles tragedy was mostly non-existent. But changes are being made, albeit slowly. But it takes time to undo the selfish practices of the past as today‘s economists can attest.

I would have been more impressed had Rhoden gone after members of the general public that steal horses, kill them for the meat, or sell them to the horse killers in other countries for the same purpose. This practice currently is epidemic in wide expanses of South Florida.

In recent months, according to a report Wednesday on the local NBC affiliate, hundreds of horses have been stolen from farms or private residences and killed, either sold to horse killers and transported to Mexico or killed on the spot for the meat.

These killers leave the ribbed carcasses, heads, manes and tails in the fields of southwest Dade, or they transport them to the Everglades for disposal. A disproportionate number of those killed have unusual markings or color, indicating there might be a thrill element involved. It was awful.

There was no mention of any well meaning people or organizations that have come along to save these horses. Now that would be a crusade worth fighting, a practice that deserves all the negative publicity it would get. Someone should drop a dime to the New York Times.