- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's May 4, 2009, issue. Subscribe today!
DEATH IS DELIVERED pink. The lethal liquid that's injected into the jugular of broken-down racehorses is always colored. That way, a vet can find it quickly. That way, it can't be mistaken for any other drug. There's no time for fumbling when a 1,200-pound animal has suffered a catastrophic injury -- a broken leg or a fractured ankle. There's no time for indecision when you're staring at a shattered jag of bone piercing the skin as if it were tinfoil. Today, a muggy New Year's Day in New Orleans, death sits in the backseat of a white Toyota Tundra parked by the grass track at Fair Grounds Race Course. Two pink bottles glow like flashlights inside a black leather medical bag. In one bottle is succinylcholine; in another, pentobarbital. The former is a paralytic, the latter a barbiturate. Thicker than syrup, each is dispensed through a three-inch, 14-gauge needle from a syringe as fat as a corn dog. Once injected, the barbiturate puts the horse into a deep sleep; then the paralytic attacks the cardiovascular system and the brain. The bigger the needle, the faster the transport, the quicker the death. On most days, these drugs stay in the backseat, unused. On most days.
ON MOST DAYS, Lauren Canady goes unnoticed. She spends a lot of her time behind the wheel of the white Tundra with the "track vet" sticker on its side, following the horses as they run. It's her job to aid them when they are injured and to euthanize them on the spot when necessary -- and it was necessary 16 times at Fair Grounds last season. Today's first race hasn't yet begun, so Canady leaves her truck idling near the starting line and walks under the grandstands toward the paddock. Wearing a blue windbreaker and khakis, the 42-year-old veterinarian blends in easily with the fans: race card in one hand, coffee and lit Marlboro in the other.
In the paddock, 10 horses circle, models strutting on a runway, on display one last time for the gamblers to ogle before they place their bets. Shiny and sculpted, the Thoroughbreds revel in the attention, their magnificent beauty making the humans around them seem small. They are born to compete, and they show it in how they flatten their ears when behind by a length or bite a challenger who gets too close or stretch their necks to win by a nose and then pose for the cameras afterward. At the moment, Canady is judging them for the final time too, searching for a limp or bob or any sign of injury. This is her second inspection of the day, the hands-off kind. Hours earlier, she administered a more rigorous exam, feeling legs and joints for signs of injury. Now she must catch anything she might have missed. She watches the animals closely as they're led out to the track, then climbs into her truck, giving each a final look as the grooms cram them, one by one, into the green starting gates ...
And they're off.
So is Canady, crouched in the driver's seat, hands at 10 and 2, seat belt undone, the Tundra trailing the horses from the dirt as they run on the turf. Her blue eyes flip between the stampede and the road, the truck fishtailing as it accelerates. Next to her in the front seat is Waverly Parsons, the track chaplain, who, minutes earlier, administered a prayer for the owners, trainers, jockeys, grooms and horses. On the floor behind them is a black metal equine leg splint, big as a ski boot. On the backseat, the black medical bag.
Rounding the first corner, Canady is silent and tense, as she is during every one of the 10 races she works each day. She can't usually drive faster than 30 mph without tearing up the road, so most of the horses have far outpaced her. A quarter mile ahead, jockey Francisco Torres is saddled on Heelbolt, winner of his previous three races.
Suddenly, Torres feels a jolt and hears a pop, like a bat hitting a softball. He will later say Heelbolt "took a bad step" -- jockeys always say the horse took a bad step. Heelbolt pulls up, hobbling as he slows from 40 mph to a stop. A scared Torres leaps off, landing several yards away.
As Canady rounds the second corner in her truck, the radio attached to her belt, labeled Vet 1, screams, "A horse is down! A rider is down!" She hits the gas.
Every eye is on her.
THEY DON'T shoot horses anymore. They used to, back when horse racing mattered, back when it grabbed America like football does now, when a day at the track meant dressing for church, with men in suits and women in hats, back when it was more about horses and less about money -- less about us. In 1973, when Secretariat won the Triple Crown, about $4.5 billion was wagered annually on horse racing. That number has since grown to nearly $14 billion. And yet the sport flashes on and off our radar now, briefly catching our attention when a Funny Cide or Smarty Jones threatens to make history, or, more tragically, when death comes to the track -- as it did for Eight Belles at last year's Kentucky Derby -- and we're reminded that one of our country's oldest sports is one in which the athletes sometimes die during competition.
Left to do the killing are the track vets, the people who pride themselves on being the strongest advocates for the horses, the people who don't give a damn about the money. "We police the sport," Canady says. It's often a thankless job. The starting salary for a regulatory vet is about $55,000, with 10-hour days the norm. There is constant, unspoken pressure not to scratch horses from competition; some owners yell at trainers who ask vets to look for injuries. While Canady is warm to most owners, she is pals with few. "You have to be friendly," she says, "but not friends."
Euthanizing horses is a small part of the job -- nationally, 1.5 out of every 1,000 must be put down because of injuries sustained on the track, according to the Association of Racing Commissioners International -- but it's the worst part. Dean Richardson "cried for days" after euthanizing his most famous patient, Barbaro. David Fitzpatrick, chief vet for the Illinois Racing Board, tears up as he talks about horses he's put down. Celeste Kunz, the emergency vet at the Meadlowlands in New Jersey, cried when Eight Belles suffered that fatal injury -- and she was watching the Derby from home. "It felt like every horse I've ever lost died that day," Kunz says. After Canady put down a foal with terminal birth defects, she "didn't talk to anyone for days."
Death can be spooky. In 1993, Kunz was working at Jersey's Monmouth Park, where mist and fog blow off the Atlantic Ocean onto the beachside track. Visibility was awful, but competition rarely stopped. After one race, Kunz counted nine horses at the finish; 10 had started. She took off on foot, walking the track with her medical tool kit, squinting through the mist until she saw a shadowy figure, already a ghost: It was a gray and white horse with a fractured ankle, waiting for someone to end his misery.
Death can be mystifying. In 2004, when Canady was working at Finger Lakes Race Track in upstate New York, she got word that a horse had been injured on a hot walker, a carousel that slowly leads the animals in circles to cool them down. When she arrived, the vet saw one of the horse's hind legs had snapped in half, but she couldn't figure out how. There were no other horses nearby, no holes in the ground, no rails that might have been kicked. "The leg just broke," Canady says with a sad shrug.
Death can be contagious. Earlier this year, seven horses had to be euthanized in two weeks at Santa Anita. Critics blamed the synthetic surface, which the California Horse Racing Board had mandated for all major tracks to improve safety. By and large, the new surface had worked, reducing deaths from catastrophic injuries statewide from 3.01 per 1,000 in 2007 to 2.29 last year. But all of a sudden horses were dropping at an alarming rate, the public was wondering why, and Santa Anita officials didn't have an answer. Then, as inexplicably as the breakdowns started, they stopped. Only two horses in the next 68 days were euthanized.
More than anything, death can be hard to shake. Most veterinary schools don't teach students how to cope with it. The American Association of Equine Practitioners doesn't have a support line to call. Vets just suck it up and go, using medical necessity as a shield. Kunz has learned to hide her feelings in those hectic moments. Still, a "nervous, energetic fear" courses through her body as she injects a horse with that toxic solution. "The decision to euthanize is scary," she says. "You're really isolated on the track. There are no other vets with you. But you can't go to pieces because you have to be there for the horse."
That's why these vets picked this career -- because they love horses enough to suffer for them, because they understand that death is sometimes better than life. They know that a broken bone is often a death sentence for an animal whose internal organs, including digestive and circulatory systems, are dependent on continued mobility. Casts and slings restrict movement and prevent those organs from functioning properly, leading to life-threatening diseases. As a result, Kunz says, "the cases where we euthanize a horse are black and white."
Death by lethal injection comes in about a minute, which seems very peaceful, very quick. So it's stunning to hear many vets say that this method isn't in the best interests of the horse. They would rather ditch the pink and do the killing in the way they deem most humane.
With a gun.
THE TRUCK slides to a stop. Canady sees Heelbolt, standing 15 yards away. He's a gorgeous horse: glistening brown coat that darkens into black legs, speckles of white surrounding his eyes, a cowlick topping the crest of his head. He's exactly four months shy of his fifth birthday, April 1. He loves apples and carrots. He's so gentle, owner Ray Guarisco and trainer Sturges Ducoing can't recall his ever kicking anyone. But Heelbolt is competitive. He's done well over the past few months, prompting Guarisco, an equipment contractor in nearby Morgan City, to visit the track today. It's the first time the owner has seen his prize horse run in person.
Canady grabs the splint and the black bag, ducks under the railing and runs up the five-foot hill to the track. Two ambulances, one for the rider, one for the horse, are en route. Chaplain Parsons runs toward Torres, who is crumpled on the ground.
"Are you okay?" Parsons asks.
"I'm fine," Torres says. "Check on the horse."
Canady is almost there. This is the job she was born to do. She loved horse racing as a kid in New Castle, Pa. Although her parents insisted her middle name, Kelso, was shared coincidentally with the Hall of Fame Thoroughbred, she prefers to think it was fate. She graduated from Cornell vet school in 1997 and worked at tracks in the Northeast before moving to New Orleans. "All my life I've wanted to be around horse racing," says Canady, a single mom with a 7-year-old daughter. "You have to be a dreamer to work at a track. This is a dream for me."
As she nears Heelbolt, he is facing away from her. He's calm, but she can see he's standing on only three legs. His left front ankle is dangling and shattered, attached only by skin. Two arteries are split. Blood is everywhere -- on his leg, his hoof, the grass. Wow, this is a bad one. Canady has seen this type of injury before, and she's seen how horses react to it. Some grunt and snort and thrash. Others, seemingly unbothered, try to run. But in her 12 years as a vet, she has never seen a critically injured horse do what Heelbolt is doing now. Eating grass.
FOR HUNDREDS of years, there was no argument about the best way to kill a horse. Those injured in the chariot races of ancient Greece and Rome were presumably stabbed. With the introduction of the musket around the 15th century, and with European armies spreading firearms and horses all over the world, killing an injured horse with a gun became accepted practice. It was quick, cheap and easy -- never mind that bullets often ricocheted out of the horse's head or that men might make the mistake of shooting the animal between the eyes. (A horse's brain is located toward the back of the head. To find it, draw a line from the outside of one eye to the opposite ear, then do the same from the other eye; where the lines intersect is the brain.)
In 1930, vets started using the Bell Gun, one of the first tools designed to kill livestock in a clean, safe, precise way. It weighed five pounds, spit .32-caliber bullets and had a bell-shape protective cover over its muzzle. To use it, vets simply fit it onto a horse's forehead, unscrewed a slot, inserted a bullet and tapped a lever. No kickback and no mess, only a sharp pop from point-blank range.
Manuel Gilman used the Bell Gun. Now 88 years old, the former vet at Jamaica, Belmont and Saratoga helped put down "a couple hundred" horses during his career, including Ruffian, the legendary filly, and Air Lift, the brother of Triple Crown winner Assault, depicted famously in W.C. Heinz's story "Death of a Racehorse." Gilman occasionally made light of the darkest aspect of his job. If his daughter, Jane, complained about having a cold, he'd say, "Maybe I should get out the gun." When he actually did use it, on horses, he thought it was the most humane form of euthanasia. "The quicker, the better," he says. "I always thought that. Still do."
Most vets of Gilman's era shared that sentiment, as did fans. Then the television age dawned in the early 1950s, and opinions changed. Horse racing suddenly became a brand, and as a brand, it couldn't afford bloody drama, especially once its popularity began to dip. "Shooting a horse was too traumatic for people to see," says Bob Copeland, a protege of Gilman's who has worked in New York, Miami and Cleveland and is now is Kentucky. "We had to say farewell to the Bell Gun."
The transition from guns to drugs was clumsy and cruel. The first solution employed was strychnine, the poison Native Americans once used to tip arrows. Vets dissolved the pills into two ounces of water and injected it. But strychnine didn't work quickly; it suffocated horses over five minutes, sometimes longer. They often died of panic-induced cardiac arrest. "It wasn't very humane or effective," Copeland says.
John S. Lundy of the Mayo Clinic came up with the current pentobarbital mix in 1930, but Gilman says it wasn't until the late 1950s that racetrack vets began to carry bottles of it in their bags. By then, it was being used off the track, too. Pentobarbital was rumored to be the cause of Marilyn Monroe's death, and the Clash wrote a lyric about its trade name: "Nembutal numbs it all, but I prefer alcohol." In 1973, no less a horseman than Ronald Reagan, who once said he knew "what it's like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him," floated lethal injection as a form of capital punishment. Today, the pentobarbital mix costs about $50 a dose, and a DEA license is required for purchase. It's illegal for nonmedical purposes in most countries and in every state except Oregon. The International Herald Tribune wrote last year about the flocks of suicidal people who visit Tijuana to buy it on the black market. Stacy Katler of the Oregon Racing Commission says that 120 ccs shot into a horse's jugular "works nine out of 10 times."
For some vets, though, that isn't good enough. Truth is, they could shoot horses if they wanted. The American Veterinary Medical Association permits it, citing a primary advantage: "Loss of consciousness is instantaneous." A box of .32-caliber bullets costs about $15, much cheaper than a dose of poison. A silencer could kill the noise, and a tarp could block the crowd's view. "The gunshot is very humane," says Larry Bramlage, who put down Eight Belles. According to Bernard Rollin, an animal-rights activist and professor at Colorado State, it's the most humane way.
But it doesn't matter if it's legal or faster or if it's the method of choice by vets who put a horse's interests first. It's not going to happen, not on racetracks, not now. Most of today's vets aren't from Gilman's era. They're from a generation that, frankly, doesn't want to shoot any animal, especially not when cameras are rolling. "If you can have a quiet, peaceful death," Kunz says of lethal injection, "I don't know if we can do better."
THERE he is, standing on three legs, bleeding from a fourth, calm as a marsh, snacking on grass. Heelbolt has no idea he's injured. Not yet, anyway. Ten minutes from now, his nerve endings will begin to send excruciating signals to his brain. As serene as he seems, he is already exhibiting signs of shock. His eyes, once coldly fixed on the track, are teary and dilated. His breathing, once quick, has quickened even more. His coat, once shiny from the pumping of oil and sweat glands, has dulled. Parsons, the preacher, gently strokes Heelbolt's nose as the horse nibbles on the turf. "It's going to be okay," he says, knowing it won't.
Canady doesn't hear a thing in situations like this. Heelbolt's nonchalance shook her initially, but now she's focused. She typically looks for every reason to save a horse, but this is an easy diagnosis. Back in the trailer that serves as her office, she has a computer program that classifies injuries by severity: 0 to 3, the horse is salvageable; 4, it's iffy; 5, it's over. This is a 5. Canady removes Heelbolt's saddle and unclips the radio from her belt. "This horse requires euthanasia," she says into it.
Out comes the pink. Canady draws 10 ccs of succinylcholine mixed with 50 ccs of pentobarbital into a syringe, then fills another with an extra 50 ccs of pentobarbital. She moves to Heelbolt's left side, where it's easier for a right-handed person to administer an injection. She strokes his neck to say good-bye -- as she does with every horse she puts down -- then puts her left index finger on his jugular and presses down, swelling the vein. She drives the needle straight into his jugular, piercing his sweaty, leathery skin, and depresses the large plunger with her thumb, pushing in the poison, darkening the pink as it mixes with blood. After it empties, she draws out the needle and repeats the motion with the second syringe. The whole process takes just a few seconds. Heelbolt doesn't flinch.
Moments after a lethal injection, a horse will feel a warming sensation, then unfold, as if stretching. But Heelbolt, maybe for the only time in his life, kicks. His broken ankle whips into Canady's chest -- thwap! -- smearing blood on her jacket, knocking her back. Parsons moves to make sure she's okay. As he does, Heelbolt falls under the railing, landing shoulder first, his nose in the dirt. He blinks rapidly for 10 seconds or so until his eyes, once beautifully alert, are blank. As his fellow horses, having just finished the race, jog by, his life is measured in shallow breaths -- until he is no longer breathing, until he is just 1,200 pounds of expired muscle, his bloody, shattered leg hooked on a railing. It's hard to know what a peaceful death looks like, but this isn't it.
Canady tosses her bloody jacket onto the track. Two men place a rubber mat next to Heelbolt. With Canady's help, they use it as a sled to pull the horse into the ambulance. Afterward, Canady sits in her truck, shaken and quiet. Now is not the time to reflect, so she turns the key and slowly circles the track. The image of Heelbolt standing on three legs and munching grass tumbles through her head. It will later, too, in the dark after she puts her daughter, Jayne, to bed. She wonders if a death in the year's first race is a harbinger. Sure enough, she'll put down seven more horses at Fair Grounds over the next three weeks.
But now another race is minutes away. Canady parks the truck at the starting line, grabs her race card and pen and opens the door, ready to go back to work. After a few steps, she stops. She's cold, in only a short-sleeved shirt. Parsons offers his jacket. "Thanks," she says. "I'll get it back to you tonight." Canady puts on the coat, blue and tan and bearing a crucifix, then disappears into the paddock, where 10 shiny Thoroughbreds strut like models on a runway. The white truck idles behind her, a dusty black bag sitting on the backseat.
Next time you see a Thoroughbred break down on the track, ask yourself who hurts more -- the horse or the person who has to kill it?