May 5, 2008 — -- When the first filly to run in the Kentucky Derby in nearly a decade shockingly broke two ankles and was euthanized shortly after taking second place in Saturday's race, it reignited the debate of whether horse racing is too cruel and dangerous for the animals.
Injuries like Eight Belles' aren't uncommon in an industry in which thoroughbreds can run 45 mph at full speed. Every year, hundreds of horses collapse on America's racing tracks after leaving the starting gate, and many of them die.
By some estimates, two horses face career-ending injuries on the race track every day, and there have been on average 1.5 deaths for every 1,000 starts in American racing, according to various studies conducted at 10 American racecourses over the past few seasons.
The races can be taxing on the animals' delicate bodies. A 1,000-pound horse will place the equivalent of 100 times the force of gravity on each hoof with very stride.
"It is a freak accident, but these accidents keep happening on national television in the biggest races to some of the biggest stars of the sport, and because of that racing has a big problem," said Louisville Courier-Journal writer Eric Crawford.
Eight Belles' death came just two years after 2006 Derby winner Barbaro, who was seen as a Triple Crown contender, crashed through the starting gates and shattered his rear leg at the Preakness in May 2006.
Despite months of therapy and efforts to rehabilitate the horse, the thoroughbred couldn't overcome the injuries and was euthanized in January 2007.
"The gene pool is not as strong as it used to be, and I think that is a big reason why you are going to get injuries," said horse trainer Nick Zito, who has been in the business for 35 years.