The vet was bearing large hypodermic syringes—one with 100cc's of a purple solution, a potent barbiturate to euthanize her, and one with barbiturate mixed with succinylcholine, a drug that would force her to the ground while the barbiturate did its work. "Get the tarp up over here," a voice yelled. Two men, standing behind the rail, raised a turquoise screen to block the view of distant spectators and so protect them from their feelings. "Come on, hold her here," Zipf said to Richardson.
So Sly stood facing the turn for home, her eyes wide and her ears working, as Zipf moved to her left side. Twenty yards down the racetrack Murphy was leaning with his back against the fence, his head down. Zipf emptied the syringes into the jugular. So Sly collapsed almost at once on her left side and died moments later in the sun. Murphy did not stay to watch the rest. He took her bridle and turned to leave. "You work with them seven days a week, and then this happens," he said. "I don't know...." The ambulance was backed to where So Sly was lying. The third race was only 20 minutes away, and she had to be removed so the show could go on. They wrapped a length of wire cable three times around her neck—"All right, take it in!" someone shouted—and then dragged her aboard with a winch. And hauled her away.
There is much uncertainty about why so many racehorses end up dead on American tracks every year; but the figures are appalling and unacceptable by any humane standard. In a paper she will present this December to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, researcher Julie Wilson of the University of Minnesota will show for the first time just how bad the numbers are. In 1992, Wilson has found, 840 horses suffered fatal racing breakdowns on American tracks. That is one fatality for every 92 races, or more than one percent. And that does not reflect the number of horses fatally injured in morning workouts. "I think more horses break down in the morning than in the afternoon," says New York trainer Howard Tesher. Wilson's figures also show that a far larger number—3,566 horses—broke down so severely last year that they could not finish the races in which they were hurt. That is one in every 22 races.
"That's way too many," says Dr. Gregory L. Ferraro, a widely respected veterinary surgeon who, disillusioned with what he calls the "rampant" use of drugs on the backstretch, walked away three years ago from perhaps the most lucrative private practice at Southern California tracks, which are among the most prosperous in the world. He sees a strong connection between drug use and breakdowns, and Ferraro does not mean only illegal medications, which veterinarians are under increasing pressure to use, but also the widespread use of legal corticosteroids, as well as the two most prominent legitimate drugs: the diuretic Lasix, which supposedly suppresses bleeding from the lungs, and phenylbutazone, or "bute," an analgesic that reduces inflammation in the joints.
"I stood up for the horsemen the first time 60 Minutes came around," Ferraro says of a segment that aired on the news program more than a decade ago. "I said, 'Don't take the bute away. Don't take the Lasix away.' And now I feel I was wrong, because I see what's happened 15 years later. It led us down the wrong path. Ii opened the gate. One little step at a time, it takes you out there. Somewhere you've got to draw the line, and the easiest place to draw the line and protect the horse is to say, 'None.' It's not like a guy who's playing football, who has the option to say, 'You can inject that if you want, but I'm not goin' out there. I'm not gonna take the risk.' Those horses don't have that option."
In a 1992 article in The North American Review entitled "The Corruption of Nobility: The Rise & Fall of Thoroughbred Racing in America," Ferraro penned a stinging rebuke against drug abuse on the backstretch, saying, "In general, treatments designed to repair a horse's injuries and to alleviate its suffering are now often used to get the animal out onto the track to compete—to force the animal, like some punch-drunk fighter, to make just one more round. Equine veterinary medicine has been misdirected from the art of healing to the craft of portfolio management, and the business of horse racing is in the process of killing its goose with the golden eggs."
There is no grander and gaudier goose than the annual Breeders' Cup; and a week from Saturday at Santa Anita Park, when the finest equine athletes in the game do battle in seven races for $10 million in purses, thousands of racing's patrons and habitués will be engaged in hand-wringing unprecedented in the sport's long history. Its economic woes aside, the horse racing industry has reached a critical state in regard to public confidence—that is, among the millions who watch it more for pleasure than for profit—and it has reached that point over the last few years because of the near carnage that has been taking place during some of the game's most celebrated events, most notably in the nationally televised Breeders' Cup itself and the Triple Crown. But the breakdown and death of So Sly at Pimlico a month ago is far more typical than Union City's more widely publicized crippling and ensuing destruction in the Preakness last spring. Aside from the emotional connections of Murphy and a few others, So Sly was just another largely anonymous horse who broke a bone in just another race on yet another forgettable card. The regularity of such events has benumbed even those whose lives are most at risk—the jockeys.
"It's happened so many times to me, I can't keep track of it," said jockey Douglas after So Sly's fall. "It's the name of the game. Nothing we can do about it."
But the nonchalant shrug will no longer suffice. If Secretariat's spectacular triumph in the 1973 Belmont Stakes took the sport to a new level of popularity, the breakdown and death of Ruffian two years later did more to besmirch racing than anything that had ever happened in the game. Racehorses had been breaking down for centuries, but never before in an event so widely seen as the great match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park. And never a horse with so vast and passionate a following as the flying black filly who had never been headed and had never known defeat. Even today the images in black and white swim powerfully through memory: of Ruffian battling the colt head-and-head as they sailed down the backstretch, of the pigeon flying up in front of her, of Ruffian hobbling horribly and limping to a stop, and then Manny Gilman, the track veterinarian, fitting the shattered ankle with an inflatable cast and rising and walking away, both hands bloody.
For many who turned off their TV sets that day, thoroughbred racing has had blood on its hands ever since. And in the last three years, of course, the situation has gotten worse. In a sense the shocking breakdown of Go for Wand in the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Belmont, as she and Bayakoa went hammer and tongs 100 yards from the wire, poisoned the well even more deeply than Ruffian's demise, since Go for Wand went down deep in the stretch, in full view of everyone, and then tried to stand on a foot that flapped around grotesquely as she bounded in a panic in front of the horrified crowds that filled the grandstand.