Horse racing is a sport that attracts people for different reasons.  For example, the intellectual challenge of figuring out races is a main draw.  The intrigue of breeding and/or racing horses as an owner is another.

For owners, the experience can be a roller-coaster ride from extreme psychological highs to the lowest of lows, and the swing in emotions can occur quickly.  The 2017 Irish Derby is a case in point.

Trainer Aidan O’Brien won the race for the twelfth time.  Capri, son of Galileo and one of five Coolmore Stud entries, came home first with his stablemate Wings of Eagles finishing third.  Wings of Eagles had won the Epsom Derby in June at odds of 40/1.

The Coolmore/O’Brien upbeat mood over winning the race was surely quickly tempered by the discovery that Wings of Eagles had incurred a bad sesamoid fracture.  While the colt reportedly can be saved, he will never race again.

Whether an injured animal is an Epsom Derby winner or the cheapest of claimers, the conscientious owner is affected emotionally.  Years ago, the father of a childhood friend of mine owned several racehorses that competed primarily at Churchill Downs.  When one of his horses was injured in a low-dollar claiming race and had to be euthanized, the owner was visibly upset, perhaps just as much so as the owner of a stakes-caliber horse.

Another owner I knew bred his mare–his only horse–to a stallion standing at Overbrook Farm in Lexington, Kentucky.  After the colt was born, the owner would drive monthly a distance of 350 miles one way from his home to Lexington to watch the colt grow and develop.  The colt never raced, suffering a fatal injury in training as a 2-year-old.  The normally placid and seemingly unemotional owner was obviously shaken by the turn of events.

Some owners, a small minority I like to think, certainly don’t care about their animals, or else they would not allow them to be illegally medicated by unscrupulous trainers and veterinarians or sent off to slaughter when their racing days are over.  But the vast majority of owners do care and, when a life-ending injury occurs, they have the same empty feeling that dog owners do when the beloved family pet must be euthanized, even after a long canine life.  Penny, our family’s rescued Shih Tzu passed in 2014 at age 13 and we miss her and talk about her often.

Whether it is Ruffian, Go for Wand, Barbaro, Wings of Eagles or a $4,000 claimer, most owners suffer when a career-ending or life-ending injury results…and not just financially.  A caring racehorse owner quietly grieves.

Prospective racehorse owners have to ask themselves if they can occasionally cope with career-ending or terminal injuries.  Are the highs worth these lows?

They, of course, are not alone in pondering such a question.  A few years ago, for instance, an owner of Indy 500 cars left the sport, saying that he could not emotionally handle the death of another driver.  National Football League owners must struggle with the long-term effects on players of collisions and concussions.  MMA fighting, boxing, and ice hockey have the same issues.

Whether the highs of racehorse ownership compensate for the lows is a decision that will vary across individuals.  My personal view is that the highs are worth the lows, with two imperative humane stipulations having to do with integrity and a safety net:  the owner will not allow his or her horses to race on medication that is performance enhancing or masks a physical problem and invites injury, and, secondly, he or she will get an injured horse competent and ongoing veterinarian care and a proper retirement home in the event injury precludes the horse from racing again.

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