Exploring the human and greater-than-human world

Churchill Downs

Looking at the grandstand and famed twin spires of Churchill Downs from the starting gate

My essay, “When Conscience Meets Capital,” garnered a lot of comments through this blog from a variety of perspectives and reactions. I also engaged in many exchanges via Facebook too, but those were more conversational, reactive, and ephemeral. This is not to discount such discourse, but I found the comments I got through the blog to be valuable in that people were self-motivated to write to me and share their perspective. So, the following essay is comprised of these voices (anonymous) with minimal interference or interpretation on my part. For organization’s sake, I have grouped the comments into four sections: “There Is Only a Dark Side,” “There Is Light, Afterall,” “Criticism of the Essay Itself,” and “Appreciation of the Essay.”

 I especially found the criticism leveled at the essay to be challenging, exhilarating, and ultimately the stuff that makes one a better scholar and more honest human being. One commenter questioned why I did not engage with the issue of drugs more, pointing out that reliance and abuse of such substances is a society-wide issue, not just one contained to racing. Great point, and an issue I do cover more in-depth in my dissertation, though I stop short of linking the use of equine performance-enhancing drugs to larger, human societal trends for the sake of staying on task with my primary research data and thesis of redemptive capital. (If you are reading this, I have friends who are amazing scholars of drug culture I can refer you to.)

 Another commenter took me to task more philosophically, arguing that a being’s ultimate value should simply be one’s “will-to-live.” Such ideas are grounded in the Humanist tradition of knowledge that emerged out of Europe circa the Renaissance, and while I too tend towards a “live and let live” approach to life personally, I know (via my research as an anthropologist and a life as human being who also knows what it is like to have one’s redemptive capital depleted) that we live in a much more divided, contingent, and brutal world than that. What exactly is “will” – is there ever an acultural, ahistorical, unproblematically universal definition of this? And what of those beings who lose that will and would rather die? What of their rights and existential implications then?   This is what I mean by “contingent.” Also, redemptive capital is meant to be something of an “oxymoron” – but not as “unfortunate” as this commenter suggests. We live in a conflicted world, torn between conscience and capital, and “redemptive capital” aims to index that – not come out somewhere on the sublime level where all problems are solved by one side triumphing over the other. I have been reading a lot of bell hooks’ work in the writing of my dissertation as she is not only an amazing scholar of feminism, class, and race in the U.S., she also hails from Kentucky. A quote from the chapter “Kentucky is My Fate” (page 6) in her book Belonging seems appropriate here:

If one has chosen to live mindfully, then choosing a place to die is as vital as choosing where and how to live.

 As the Kentucky Derby will be running this coming Saturday, May 3rd, I also offer this essay as a revisitation of where Thoroughbred horse racing stands as it is about to enact one of its most important rituals and races. This is a sad Derby year for me personally. Not only because of the PETA video and the uproar (and ongoing polemics) it caused, but also because the horse I rooted for in 2012, Dullahan, passed away from colic last October 2013 after just having been retired from racing. He was the half-brother to Mine that Bird, who is apparently being (problematically) valorized at Churchill Downs for the Derby this year, as the first comment below indicates…


“There will be no redemption, come May. The Downs will welcome Leonard Blach, owner of Mine That Bird, a Kervorkian proponent of horse slaughter for human consumption. He will arrive, with an impressively decorated bus and Mine That Bird, in tow. The Downs will show the movie “50-1” where Blach and Mark Allen (Bird’s owners) are portrayed as small-time players who make the Big Time and win the Derby. Churchill Downs knows full well that Blach is the Expert Witness for Valley Meat in Roswell, NM. A decrepit slaughter house, 2 minutes behind Blach and Allen’s Breeding Barns. When opened, Valley Meat plans to kill 121 horses per DAY for human consumption. Churchill Downs is fully aware but is holding their breath, that it not be made public, at least till the Derby Party is over.”


 “How it has been forgotten the very fact that these majestic beauties have carried the human to war & died for it; how they died in underground mines for the human needs; how they labored for human food 20 hours per day…and now…now…they are being used for gambling, like cards or dice or anything that CAN JUST BE THROW AWAY, DISCARDED like a SOMETHING…where have our beautiful, majestic PARTNERS from decades together with and  for us, where have they gone? WHAT HAVE WE DONE??



“The sport of Kings disgraceful fall from grace is taking it’s toll on everyone involved in the horse racing industry. Time to clean it up once & for all. Stop racing babies & there will not be a need for most of the drug used & there will be far less injuries to treat. Plus the drugs given that have no effect except to harm the horses….here is on vet’s view…    Quote  I am honored to have permission to post this answer to my question “What is your opinion on thyroid medication in race horses?” the answer was as follows:

“Trainers administer thyroid hormone to their horses with the hope that it will be a PED. As you know, it will increase lean muscle mass, increase the basal metabolic rate (HR, BP, etc) and eventually cause nervousness and anxiety which these inexpert trainers read as the horse is ” ready to run” when in fact, it is a sign of toxicity. The international governing body for all other equine sports, the FEI, has put thyroxine on its controlled substances list as having the potential to be a PED. I also believe it belongs on the banned substances list in horse racing. The other reason I have been told it is given to racehorses is due to the fact that abuse of cobalt as an EPO like substance, can cause low thyroid activity. So the bottom line is we need to enforce the standards of practice for vets which would require a blood test documenting hypothyroidism before an individual horse could be prescribed the medication. Then regular tests would need to be done to be sure the supplementation was adequate. In nearly 30 years in practice I have never had a patient under 10 years old with even borderline thyroid hormone levels. And never in a racehorse. I do regular screening for endocrine assessment and they are always high normal as we would expect a young thoroughbred to be. Thank you very much for caring about this issue. We need an army to confront the corrupt practices.”

~ Dr. Sheila Lyons, Founder and Director, The American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation…unquote”


“Thank you for this perceptive essay on horse racing. I have often decried the culture of the racetrack where magnificent animals are treated as machinery, prone to mechanical breakdown and kept on the track with quick fixes until they crash and burn.

The culture of racing is one where people lose their humanity by increments. Being competitive means taking advantage of drugs and procedures that ease pain and hide injuries only to move a horse from barn to track prematurely. There is no time for natural healing. No time for kindness. No incentive for ethical veterinary practice. No regard for horses and jockeys.

The horse that forges to the lead in a race is said to have heart. But the  trainer, the veterinarian and the owner that used drugs and cruelty to get him to the starting gate are themselves heartless.”


“Horses have no hope while humans continue to look at them from the view point of what they can get out of them. Nobody asks me what I am I doing with my cat, and if it is being wasted. Of course, there’s a huge financial difference in the up keep of horses and most other animals. At what stage will people realize that they Did get their pound of flesh out of horses hundreds of years ago. The history of humans and their relationship with the horse, is in general, an awful reflection of unrelenting human greed.”



“How’s this for redemptive qualities of the thoroughbreds and of the industry?  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJqfopve7CE The industry is beginning to care and what is happening is often very, very good.”


“Everything about the sport of racing is taking it’s toll on ALL involved…time to clean this industry up once & for all…”

“Thoroughbreds. To a shy girl who felt more at home with horses and books than parties and proms, they represented all that was beautiful and courageous about a world that could often be painfully cruel.

I was, and at times still am, that girl who is in love with horses, especially Thoroughbreds. What  happened this past week will help to shape the future of this sport. Please note that I said “sport”, not industry.

My bachelor’s degree in Animal Science views most human-nonhuman animal relationships in the context of industry. The dairy industry. The poultry industry. The Thoroughbred industry.

Could this be the problem with racing? If we view racing as an “industry’, are these horses no more than machines that are “disposed of” once they break down?

I am glad that a light is shining on the dark, dirty secrets of some parts of the backstretch.

Whether that light will be bright and strong enough to ignite the necessary change is the question yet to be answered.

There are good people on the track and the farms who do love and care for their horses. I worked with them, and hope to count myself in their number.

I want to be an agent of change for the sport. The focus of my master’s studies in Anthrozoology is humane retirement solutions for Thoroughbred race horses. This is the least I can do for the horses whose courage I hope to emulate.”



“As an anthropologist, I expected you to take a wider view of the use of drugs and veterinarian practices on the racetrack. I am not speaking about illegal drugs, but about the ones which are legal, such as lasix. Let me say first, that I pony horses on the racetrack. I have never owned or trained a thoroughbred. So I think I have a unique viewpoint. My income does not depend on whether the horses win or lose. I have no stake in their performance results, but I’m there everyday and witness their daily routines. I personally think there is way too much medication and medical procedures on the track. But I think the problem goes much deeper than the racetrack; it goes right to our society’s belief in and use of drugs. I thought you, as an anthropologist would understand this connection. Society as a whole relies on drugs instead of healing for so many things. In small amounts and in specific instances, drugs can be very beneficial. But they are misused when they are used in a “cure-all” blanketing way. It has been my experience, that most trainers give medications in order to help their horses. Not to help them win at all costs, but to be healthier and more comfortable. PETA would paint all pain-killing meds as abusive, but I would be willing to bet that almost every one of them have taken aspirin on occasion. It’s a matter of degree, and a matter of being able to know where to draw the line. At what point does the use of medication, or of medical procedures stop being beneficial and become abusive? For most trainers and vets, it isn’t about bad intent, or being unfeeling, it’s about carrying what in small amounts is beneficial, too far. Human medicine is just as guilty of this trend as veterinary medicine. More is always better, or better to be safe than sorry. Take the anti-depressants, the sleeping pills, put the kids on ADHD meds, etc. It’s a bad societal mind-set rather than just a race track one.”


“The author seeks a middle ground morally between the philosophy of reverence for life, which says that the value of a living being is sustained by its own will-to-live and that of Aristotle, who said that animals were only things that have their value assigned to them by their owners. She uses the unfortunate oxymoron “redemptive capital” to attempt to balance the contradiction between a moral outlook and a monetary one suggestive of getting a return on an investment. But between the outlook that a horse sustains its own value by its own will-to-live and that of the person who assesses it according to his judgement about its “redemptive value” there is ultimately no middle ground. A choice must be made. Perhaps all indeed is darkness in the world of horse racing. Foals are torn away from their mothers and given to nurse mare foals. Foals with less “redemptive value” are slaughtered. Horses are raced too early out of owner greed with the consequence that horses suffer injuries. Horses who are judged to have no “redemptive value” meaning return for their investment are sent to slaughter if they do not promise to win money on the racetrack. “Redemptive value” is a disingenuous term. It suggests that horses must still be looked at a return on an investment of some kind, whether monetary or one of conscience. But horses don’t exist in order to offer anyone opportunities for “redemptive value”. They exist, like each human being and give value to their own lives simply because they will-to-live. This means each horse seeks to express its own nature freely and to seek joy and avoid pain and the fear of death. Is it possible that the need to show some light in the dark world of horse racing is simply motivated by the fear that the money lobbying power of the race horse industry is too great to be defeated ? There is no middle ground in some contradictions. Either a horse has value because of its own pursuit of life liberty and happiness or it has some value, including “redemptive value” assigned to it by either a God or human being playing the role of God over Nature.”


“An endoscopy, as shown at 1:07, has nothing to do with shooting drugs up the nostrils, as you put it. On the contrary, it shows there was enough invested in the horse’s health to investigate what, if any, problems were causing the horse’s poor performance.” (Author’s note: was thinking of how some drugs ARE administered nasally, not mistaking this for the depicted endoscopy that evaluates the integrity of equine airways)


“how can we humanely end the lives of cows,goats,sheep,and pigs for human or animal consumption but we cannot for a equine? how can we humanely end the lives of unwanted pets for burial in the dump but cannot use there remains for anything of purpose?”



“I saved an OTTB. I require nothing more from him than he his happy to give on any day. He is more than worth my “investment”. I thank you for this article.”


“It is only limiting to think that we are not all connected by a cord from  my heart  through a loop in others we are in this world together and what effects one person or one animal  effects all of us it is not possible for one person to change horse racing but it is possible  for one person to change and help  change to happen. Let us start the change by being responsible owners that communicate their values and expectations to their trainers becoming cautionary not reactionary. If you care about your horse express it by your presence. It is our,the owners racehorse not the trainers. Be involved for now til Usada or some governing body is in place that is what we can do for racing and our horse. Love your article.”


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