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Littlefield's Take on the Derby

This article is more than 11 years old.

Since the Kentucky Derby last weekend, there's been a lot of talk about reining in the "Sport of Kings."

Immediately after the race, runner-up Eight Belles crossed the finish line, the filly broke both ankles. She had to be put down.

Now the tragedy is prompting debate over the state of thoroughbred horse racing. WBUR'S sports commentator Bill Littlefield's take goes beyond that particular sport. [0:22]

Audio for this story will be available on WBUR's web site later today.


Thoroughbred race horses are carefully nurtured and maintained animals, but in the course of the competitive activity for which they're bred, numbers of them are seriously injured, and some are euthanized.

Boxers are sometimes celebrated as practitioners of a kind of science. Defense and tactics determine the outcome of a bout much more often than a knockout does. But many boxers have been seriously damaged at their trade, scores of them fatally.

Millions of Americans build their fall and winter weekends around professional football. Much of the action generated in N.F.L. games is exciting. Some of it is breath-taking. But recent research has demonstrated that the brain damage some N.F.L. players have sustained during the routine collisions in their workplace is comparable to the irreversible impairment suffered by boxers.

Following the collapse and euthanizing of Eight Belles after the Kentucky Derby, critics of horse racing and some within the industry have blamed breeding practices, the age at which the horses beginning racing, the drugs trainers use, the frequency with which those horses run, track surfaces, the behavior of jockeys, and, most weirdly, the inclusion of fillies in races where most of the horses are male.

Each time a boxer dies there are calls for headgear, redesigned gloves, rearrangement of the ring ropes, and more thorough pre- and post-fight physicals.

Each time the post-mortem on the brain of an ex-football player reveals work-related damage, thus explaining why the player has been unable to function normally — or function at all - in his retirement, there is a clamor for space age helmets and the medical examination of players who've suffered concussions before they play again.

Attention to some of these circumstances might reduce injuries to horses and people.

But as long as we regard horse races, boxing matches, and football games as compelling entertainment — and history suggests that we will continue to do so, in part because of the risks involved — horses and people will suffer injuries, and some of them will not recover from those injuries, and some of them will die diminished and much younger than they would have died if they had never run or boxed or played football while we clapped and roared at their performances.

This is not to suggest that we should not tinker with our riskiest games in the interest of making them safer. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that competitions that thrill us in part precisely because they are intrinsically dangerous — even deadly - will ever be entirely safe and free from shame.

This program aired on May 8, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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