Monday, May 05, 2008

The high cost of extreme athleticism

The Monk has sprained his ankle so often, especially when he was young and played basketball every day, that he cannot count how many such injuries he had. But only once did I even have to sit out a day. Elite athletes are different: their muscles and ligaments are stretched so taut that if something goes awry, they don't merely sprain, they injure. Thus, the muscle tears and ligament pulls that are nightmares for athletes are far less common among average people who merely perform light exercise like walking.

In horseracing, the stresses on elite athletes are a deadly risk. Pat Forde notes that after the euthanisation of Eight Belles on Saturday, after she finished second in the Kentucky Derby, in five of the past 13 Saturdays counting the Breeders Cup 2005-07 and the triple crown races from 2006-present, a horse has suffered a fatal injury.

Breeding for speed, not endurance, lighter race schedules, and the obscene amount of pressure the horse puts on his legs (5000 pounds of force on each hoof when racing on a bone the size of your wrist) means thinner legs, less ability to recover and danger of fractures.

And a fracture is deadly for a horse for many reasons -- minimal blood circulation, laminitis, drug reactions, and more.

Big Brown, the Derby winner, has been touted as a potential Triple Crown winner. A horse that could finally break the drought that horse racing has suffered both in popularity and relevance because the last Triple Crown triumph (Affirmed) occurred 30 years ago. But after the fall and death of Eight Belles Saturday (and poor taste by NBC to show so much of the revelry after Big Brown's win with not much discussion of Eight Belles' condition), the sport of kings now worries about its further tarnished crown.

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