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COMMENTARY: The untold story about thoroughbred horses

CAMDEN, S.C.

When Justify barreled across the finish line to win the rain-drenched Kentucky Derby, he was notably clean — free of the mud that covered the faces of his 19 competitors. Justify won by two-and-a-half lengths.

The chestnut steed was a standout in another significant way. He was the first 3-year-old thoroughbred in 136 years to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old, thus breaking the so-called “Curse of Apollo.” Apollo was the last horse to have won the Run for the Roses without having raced as a 2-year-old — in 1882.

While racing fans are always interested in historical stats, many in the horse industry are more interested in how a horse’s age foretells its likely shortened life owing to injury. Around 20,000 thoroughbreds are born a year. At 2, a horse’s bones aren’t fully formed, yet typically, they’re put on the track at that age. This unfortunate fact leads us to other less agreeable statistics.

Each year, 130,000 horses, 10,000 of them thoroughbreds, are transported to Mexico or Canada under abhorrent circumstances — crammed into trucks or trailers for more than 24 hours without food or water — to be slaughtered under often-brutal conditions. Exhausted, terrified, dehydrated and hungry, these horses are usually shocked and bled-out.

Such is the largely invisible, parallel universe for horses that exists in stark contrast to the garden-party hats and cocktail glasses of Kentucky’s Churchill Downs and other venues.

South Carolina’s oldest inland city, Camden was once a resort destination for wealthy Northerners who “wintered” here to play polo, fox hunt and enjoy the porch life, which still dominates the social scene. The horse industry continues to thrive in Camden, which is home to some of the nation’s top breeders, owners and trainers.

Among them is Katherine “Kate” Denton, with whom I happened to watch this year’s Derby at a local dining-and-cottage club. I didn’t have a favorite horse going in, but Denton persuaded me to pull for the odds-on favorite Justify precisely because his legendary trainer, Bob Baffert, had held the colt back to allow him time to mature.

Lucky winners such as Justify most likely will enjoy the stud’s life after his racing career ends. But other horses that ran their best in the Derby will be off to the slaughterhouse in the next two to three years, Denton says. Because the United States has outlawed horse slaughter, some may be among the tens of thousands of horses that are herded into trailers annually and sent out of sight to die, horribly.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture calculated that 92.3 percent of the horses sent to slaughter are healthy and could complete a normal lifetime but for a place to call home.

Part of the problem is overbreeding. Another is profitability. Americans may flinch at eating horse meat, but people in some other countries share no such qualms. Those in the horse slaughter business are highly motivated and often outbid kinder-hearted others at auction. Although racehorse adoption, like greyhound adoption, has become popular in recent years, adopting a horse isn’t a realistic option for most people.

Denton, who trains horses to start racing at 3, is among those who would prefer these beautiful animals be slaughtered in the United States, where relatively humane practices are already in place for cows and other animals, thanks largely to a woman named Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University animal sciences professor and autism activist.

Because of her own autism, Grandin was able to see life visually, as farm animals do, and created a revolutionary system for humanely taking them to slaughter without pain or fear. While the Humane Society insists that there is no humane way to slaughter horses given their unique makeup and advanced fight-or-flight reflex, Grandin says the Mexican abattoir is the worst-possible case.

As repugnant as the thought is, and barring changes to breeding practices or incentives for adoptions, humane slaughter at home seems the better option. There really is no way to justify current practices.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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