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REPORTING FROM ... THE 133RD PREAKNESS STAKES

5/19/2008
John Clarke Jr.

Who invited PETA?

When throwing a good sports bash, People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) members rarely make the guest list. Though entertaining, the lovably kooky, headline-grabbing animal rights activists are not exactly the types to tailgate and talk trifectas and track stats over bourbon and ribs. But that didn't stop them from crashing the party at Pimlico.

A PETA crew set up camp outside The 133rd Preakness Stakes to protest what they called the cruel and unusual treatment of thoroughbred race horses. Holding giant posters with photos of Eight Belles and the words: "Eight Belles: Raced to Death", the group pushed a platform that included outlawing drugs, whipping and under-aged females (in horse racing, that is.) They're calling for a congressional investigation, too, hoping to elevate the drugs issue to the level of the MLB steroids scandal. "The difference between baseball players and the drugging of the horses is that the players make the choice to take drugs," said comely PETA flack Ashley Bryne. "These horses don't have a choice."

As the day progressed and the booze flowed, some race fans turned on the protesters, yelling "eat a hamburger!". "vegetarians suck!" and chanting "PETA sucks!" One man shouted, "I've got 50 on Big Brown collapsing." Clever. A woman approached Byrne, seeming at first to side with PETA. "I love animals," she said. Byrne nodded in agreement. The woman continued: "Yeah, they're delicious."

Deep in Pimlico's inner sanctum—the jockey room—the riders lounged around, eating and watching television. Some watched bowling while others watched the races. One flipped the channel to NBC, where the coverage was discussing Eight Belles and how the US Jockey Club plans to form a panel to examine health and safety issues. In the opening of the debate, an announcer used the term "death sport" and compared thoroughbred racing to bullfighting. The jockeys exploded with groans, some clenched their fists while others waved their hands in dismissal at the monitors. Death Sport. The reaction was visceral.

Shortly before the Preakness Stakes, we caught up with Big Brown owner Michael Iavarone. We didn't want to ruin his high-spirits or jinx a possible Triple Crown sweep, but we had to ask about the PETA protest. One minute he was grinning like a proud, nervous father. The next, his mood darkened, his smile vanished and he shot us a look as if someone peed in his Black-Eyed Susan. He started to walk away, then stopped. Was he concerned about protests or potential congressional hearings?

"No," he shook his head. "I'm not worried about any of that. How many protesters were out there anyway?" Answer: 20, maybe 25. With that, he walked off towards the winner circle with two menacing-looking associates.

Back with PETA, we wanted to clarify a few things: no whipping, drugs or under-age action? What are we supposed to do on Saturday nights?

"I can think of lots of better things to do on a Saturday," Byrne said as she flipped a lock of blond hair from her face. "And a lot more stimulating things, too."

Hey, Belmont is on a Saturday. Done. See you there!