Monday, March 31, 2008

Age is Just a Number

Yesterday was my dad's birthday. He turned a spry 77--which he reminded me is the new 67. It is not only people who are benefiting from advances in medicine and nutrition to make us feel as young as we think we are, but animals too are living longer and longer lives.

In fact, the Philadelphia Zoo has quite a few geriatric patients as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week. There's Spot, age 25, a spectacled langur; BooBoo, the Andean bear who is now 30 and Twigga, age 28, who is the fifth-oldest giraffe in North America.

Anyone who has ever had an senior pet knows that old age usually comes along with medication and the zoo geriatric set gets its share of supplements, all cleverly disguised in food. You try giving a giraffe an arthritis pill that is as big as a nickel! The zoo keeper hides it in her banana but I know that Amos would find a way to eat around it.

Better nutrition has also played a huge role in animals' increased longevity. As much as you may not like commercial pet foods, they do provide dogs and cats with complete and balanced nutrition, some specifically developed to correspond with age and size.

And I know you have seen the bevy of products on the market for aging dogs: everything from a sling to hold up their rear legs and help them up the stairs to portable ramps to help them in and out of the car. My two dogs have benefited from a "therapeutic" bed, bought for a canine long deceased since they were both puppies!

The bottom line is that we all get older and quality of life is very much an issue for pets as well as people. With proper care, everyone should be able to enjoy their golden years.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Why I am Rooting for Davidson

In the blog-o-sphere, they call this off topic, but forgive me while I digress...

It is December 2003, and I am standing in the corner of the Martin Luther High School gymnasium (where there are no bleachers because they have been removed since they were condemned), watching my middle son play against one of the city's top ranked basketball teams. I am not sure why our suburban, private school team ventured through metal detectors into the heart of this inner city school to play a game, but I think it had something to do with exposure, for the team, yes, because they were good, but predominantly for their star player, a senior transfer from France named Boris Meno.

It is a close and exciting game and unbelievably our team leads at the half. During the break, I strike up a conversation with the gentleman standing next to me who clearly knew that I was associated with the visiting team. A tall, silver haired gentleman, dressed in a sport coat and khaki pants, he looked almost as out of place as I did. He introduced himself as Bob McKillop, the coach of the Davidson College basketball team. It turns out that he was in town to scout Boris and so far he liked what he had seen. I had overheard him on the phone raving about Boris' skills and "coach-ability."

Now my middle son was a good basketball player but not Division I material but this nice gentleman made a point to ask me which one belonged to me. He even gave him a cursory glance when they resumed play, but he also asked me where said son was applying to college.

On that very day, my son was waiting to hear from Stanford about the early decision application he had submitted so I told him. McKillop smiled and wished him good luck. But he also told me that if he didn't get in, he was sure there would be other places that would be delighted to have such a well-rounded student.

Well it turns out that our team won that game, Boris went to Davidson (after a post-grad year at Northfield-Mt. Herman to improve his English skills), my son did not get into Stanford early decision but graduated from Univ. of Pa last year where he played four years of JV basketball, and Boris, after starting last year, has become the all-important sixth man this year while serving as captain for the past two years.

Watch for him. He's number 5 and usually makes significant rebounds, sets screens and hands the ball off. To say he's a fabulous young man is an understatement; he truly deserves all of this and more. I remember back when he played with my son, one of the coaches predicted he might even make it to the NBA.

I don't know if he's that good, but he's that deserving and he's clearly benefited from great coaching on and off the court.

So excuse me if I yell my lungs out for Boris and Davidson. McKillop deserves to be a nice guy who finishes in the top 4.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Say Cheese

It seems as if the food supply is not safe anywhere, including Italy. A story in yesterday's paper reports that the buffalo mozzarella cheese produced from cows near Naples, reported to be the premier buffalo cows in the country, contains high levels of dioxin, a cancer causing poison.

It seems that these particular prized buffalo cows graze in a "region strewn with illegal mafia-controlled toxic trash that Italian governments have failed to clean up for more than a decade."

Delightful. Never mind that people have probably already been eating this cheese for ten years. The Italians are having a hard time admitting there is a problem even when the cheese coming from 83 of the regions 2,000 dairy farms contains higher-than-permitted levels of dioxin. Even "the European Union leadership demanded explanations and scolded Italian officials for failing to provide adequate information." In response Italian Agriculture Minister Paolo de Castro said, "The cases are few and they have been isolated."

In fact, to demonstrate the safety of their product, farmers brought Angela, a buffalo cow, to Rome to participate in a demonstration organized by mozzarella producers to prove the safety of their product.

I can't help but contrast this with the incredible speed with which the British authorities clamped down on the mad cow disease outbreak a few years ago. In fact, the last time I was in London, about two years ago, they were in the midst of handling another possible outbreak and they were shutting down farms for miles around the suspected area.

Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea immediately suspended imports of buffalo mozzarella and the European Commission threatened a Europe-wide trade ban on Italian mozzarella if more stringent measures were not undertaken to both disclose the nature of the problem and prevent it from continuing. Officials insist that none of the contaminated cheese was exported but sales of domestic mozzarella have decreased 30% since the scare began.

Buyer beware. Stick with domestic mozzarella for a while.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Hay is for Horses

NPR ran a story two days ago about the hay shortage in the South and the fact that many horses in that part of the country are being turned into rescue operations by people who can no longer afford to feed them. The lack of hay in the Southeast due to the continuing drought has pushed hay prices up to $9.00 a square bale, more than double last year's cost.

Often it is not only the cost of hay but the lack of it altogether that compound the issue. My sister, in Lexington, KY, alerted me to the story in their local paper this morning about the seizure of 70 malnourished horses from a farm near the Kentucky River. "Instead of seizing the animals, the government should help people by finding hay," the owner of the farm said.

The hay shortage in Kentucky is what prompted horse rescue organizations in that state to meet on Tuesday to determine a united, state-wide plan to deal with the crisis. I know Alex Brown attended that meeting and I, for one, am delighted to see such a spirit of cooperation among state-wide rescue groups.

My initial and very superficial investigation into the horse rescue movement has taught me that not all rescues are created equal. Suffice it to say that some people have more experience than others in caring for horses that often need more than just food and water to thrive. It is an expensive and lifelong undertaking for those who are devoted to the cause, and the concept of a state-wide network of rescues working together does more for the cause of horse rescue than individual, splintered groups, working in their own little universes.

What about taking it a step farther and requiring those in the state horse rescue umbrella organization to abide by standards of care for the horses they rescue, including random inspections by a board of overseers? I know, I know, few have the time or resources to undertake this effort but I have to believe that Kentucky could pave the way in this endeavor, setting the bar high for other states to follow.

It seems to me that if everyone who was truly serious about the cause of equine welfare put the welfare of the horse front and center, this would be a no-brainer.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

When the Dog House Must Be Sold

The housing crunch is taking its toll on pets as well as people. According to USA Today, thousands of pets, whose owners have lost their homes to foreclosure, are arriving every month at animal shelters around the country. Although there are no exact numbers, workers at shelters in areas where foreclosures are high are reporting an upsurge in pets put up for adoption because their owners are "moving."

The Humane Society of the United States has created a $15,000 fund to help shelters accommodate the needs of all these new arrivals and many individual shelters, including the Pennsylvania SPCA, are devising programs to help these pets.

In my neck of the woods, the Pennsylvania SPCA has waived the fees usually associated with their "good home guarantee" program which essentially guarantees that the pets surrendered due to foreclosures will not be euthanized. "With everything else they're going through, (people who foreclose) should not have to worry that their animal will be euthanized," says CEO Howard Nelson. According to USA Today, at least 10 families have taken advantage of the PA program in less than three months.

Of course this brings up the topic of responsible pet ownership, a subject that applies to animals of all types. I can't tell you the number of horses that were paraded through the New Holland ring with their ribs sticking out because their owners could no longer afford to feed them. In the perfect world, owners should plan for their pets as well as for their human dependents in the case of the proverbial rainy day. Sadly, many do not and simply leave their pets to fend for themselves when they abandon their homes.

Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that Americans care about their pets even when they are forced to leave them behind. Bravo to the SPCA and Humane Society for trying to make a heart-wrenching situation a little easier. I can only imagine that it is indeed some consolation to know that your beloved pets are being provided for if you cannot do it yourself.

No one ever wants to think about being in this situation but perhaps now is a good time to stockpile some extra pet food and medicine(s), just in case.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My Visit to New Holland

On Monday I paid my first visit to the infamous New Holland Horse Auction with two guides, who shall remain anonymous. I am very grateful for their willingness to act as my escorts since they both have been there numerous times and knew the inner circle of "players." I should also point out that I went on Easter Monday, at their suggestion, because it was a huge sale--they estimated between 400 and 500 horses were sold.

This particular sale was clearly a social event for the hundreds of Amish who were in attendance. The parking lot was jammed and there were vendors selling everything from Auntie Anne's pretzels to costume jewelery and horse-related kitsch. Dare I say there was a festive atmosphere with lots of children running around, mothers with babes in arms, hundreds of Amish buggies with horses tied up?

Inside the auction ring, it was all, as one of my guides pointed out, "put on a show." Every horse that was ridden around the ring was touted by the auctioneer as "sound as they come." Some were clearly more sound than others; some were also more well fed than others. As one rescue regular put it, "They're all sound on Monday; let's see who can walk on Wednesday."

In the viewing area, two long barn areas on either side of the main ring, horses were tethered to both sides and all were fed and watered. We did see one horse who had broken his halter and was wandering aimlessly for a bit until he found his companions and then he actually stood, nose nestled on the sway back of his "buddy" without being tied up.

There were literally horses of every variety, big Belgian draft horses right down to miniature horses and mules. I felt that the viewing area was actually an accident waiting to happen as people walked up and down the aisles behind all the horses. Actually one woman was indeed kicked in the face and carted away in an ambulance. I found it remarkable there weren't more casualties.

There were indeed some thoroughbreds--they clearly stood out from the rest--some I learned right off the track. I am pleased to report that the majority of these were rescued by one of the many horse rescues in attendance. Everyone, it seems, wears some sort of logo-ed clothing with either the name of the "horse trader" (kill-buyer) they work for or the rescue organization they represent. It is fairly easy to tell the good guys from the bad ones. The "regulars" have standing bidding numbers--my guides told me which ones were kill-buyers--and their horses go into holding pens, known as kill-pens, outside the sales arena.

I did not stay until the end of the sale when I hear the USDA stickers are slapped on those horses in the kill-pens and their shoes removed before they are loaded with cattle prods onto the massive trailers. When I was there, the kill-pens were relatively empty.

I am still digesting the experience and actually glad that I had to leave for my class before I saw more than I might have been prepared to see. The bottom line is this: some of these horse have truly seen better days; some have not. But none of them deserve to die in a slaughter house.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mistaken Identity?

A friend told me this great story that came from the Associated Press about the visitation policy at Wilcox Memorial Hospital on Kauai, Hawaii.

It seems that a man visiting his relative in the hospital on that island thought that he would bring the relative's horse along to cheer him up. It turns out that the hospital does permit pets to visit patients in the hospital.

So he brought the horse to the hospital, put him on the elevator and made it up to the third floor before they were stopped by hospital personnel. According to the AP, "Security managed to get the man and the horse out of the hospital with just a few scruff marks."

It turns out that the hospital pet policy applies only to cats and dogs. "On Kauai, we have a very warm inviting atmosphere at Wilcox," said hospital spokesperson, Lani Yukimura. "We just hope people understand this is not a place for a horse."

Just to add insult to injury, when the man brought the patient out to see the horse, presumably on the hospital grounds, he told the hospital staff, "That's not my horse."

What's that they say about never looking a gift horse in the mouth?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Update on Amos

Many of you have inquired about Amos health since our last trip to the vet for his unexplained limping. Well, the good news is that he does not have Lyme disease. Blood test #2 revealed that he had no evidence of exposure to the virus in his system. So no antibiotics.

However, I told the vet that I wasn't leaving without a new plan of action. I didn't think the acupuncture was working miracles and while the dog is not suffering--he eats, sleeps, barks, wags his tail and is always so genuinely pleasant that it breaks my heart even more when he cannot walk more than a few steps without limping noticeably.

I guess I made my case because all of sudden I had two prescriptions: one to use for five days while weaning him off the baby aspirin and the second, Rimadyl, to start on Saturday, which I did.

The great news was that Amos had absolutely no side effects from aspirin withdrawal--the transition pills were pain killers and he was great on those. No limping, in fact, and we went for a couple of long walks. I started the Rimadyl on Saturday as directed with one pain killer until it kicks in.

Yesterday Amos seemed like his old self. We went for a long walk and although he did limp every once in a while, he also walked really briskly, chased geese (with me on the other end of the leash) and made it much farther than I probably should have gone. Last night he was limping slightly so I am going to rest him today, but no pain killer last night, just the Rimadyl before bed.

It's probably too soon to tell if the new drug is working at full capacity, but let's just say that I'm on the verge of crafting an Ode to Rimadyl. It just may have given me back my dog!

FYI, the VPI pet insurance claims are trickling back in and elbow displasia, which is technically what the vet thought Amos had at one point, is NOT covered in my policy because it is a structural deformity. I called to check. I submitted the last form with the diagnosis "lameness" so we'll see what happens. They did cover the first round of x-rays to determine the diagnosis of elbow displasia but not the second since I gave the same diagnosis. So far, the only acupunctures that were covered were the ones for which I wrote arthritis as the diagnosis, not elbow displasia. I have the option of resubmitting everything with his vet records so the case is not closed just yet.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Two "Chicks" In Need of Loving Home

In honor of Easter, I give you these two little "chicks" who need homes. These are two eight week old, female German Shepherd puppies rescued by Amanda Sorvino (Paul's daughter) who pulled them from a puppy mill breeder. They were being kept in a rabbit hutch with their siblings and their parents and there was no room for all of the animals to move around. Amanda swooped in and brought these two beauties out and they are looking for homes.

They are very sweet, very well behaved--she says they are paper trained and extremely friendly. They have slept both nights on her bed with her and no mistakes! The only problem is that they like to play with each other too much in the middle of the night.

They do not need to be kept together--they are only eight weeks old so they will do very nicely in loving homes. If you are interested leave a comment and I'll make sure Amanda gets the message.

Now as for what I was doing with Amanda Sorvino...well, more to follow.

Happy Easter!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Borders For Sale

For some weeks I have been reading about the re-invention of Borders. They have a new protocol store which is supposed to be more technologically hip--sort of like an Apple Store for books--where you can get on site help to download books and music. I read a review of the first one and the impression of the reviewer was that the new technology did little to enhance the sale of books, but of course that was one person's opinion. I think the general premise was that if you got people in the store, helped them download the songs they want directly to their MP3 players, they might buy more since it was so user friendly.

The last time I visited our local Borders store looking for a specific title, I couldn't help but notice that the shelves were looking a little bare. There did not seem to be the abundance of books that there once was--certainly not up front where you would think they would be stacked sky high--and even the best-sellers area looked a little sparse. Also their shelving system seems to defy my logic. The title I wanted was indeed there but it took two people to find it.

So when I read about re-invention, I was all for it. Apparently however, the plan was too cash intensive. Today's paper carries the report that Borders has "put itself up for sale and halted its dividend." According to CEO George Jones, the company was unable to borrow the money to remodel all its stores and pay for the new technology it promised.

Amazon, of course, is killing retail book sales but for some reason I thought that Borders and Barnes and Noble were impenetrable. Turns out that discount retailers like Wal-mart and Costco have also been giving the big two a run for their money. And banks are just not that eager to lend money these days. Border's largest shareholder, Pershing Square Capital Management agreed to lend the company $42.5 and made an offer for some of its international stores. And not to rub it in, but Barnes and Noble's shares jumped 8.1% on news that its fourth quarter profit had fallen less than expected.

Isn't it ironic? It doesn't seem all that long ago that Borders and Barnes and Noble were blamed for stomping out all the smaller, independent bookstores and now an even bigger retailer is blamed for ending their dominion. I wonder, however, if people are buying fewer books or just buying them with one click. I also wonder if bookstores are just going to become obsolete when we all can download books directly to our electronic readers. Or maybe better still, the independent bookstores might rise from the ashes because people really want old fashioned recommendations and service.

In my neck of the woods, the local Borders put Barnes and Noble (which was less than a half mile away) out of business. Seems like we might soon be without both.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Balance It

Sabina Pierce (Barbaro's photographer) and I met with Dr. Kathryn Michel, University of Pennsylvania veterinary nutritionist on Wednesday at Penn in connection with a project on which we are collaborating. No, neither one of us have given up on our Barbaro books. We are also pursuing a joint venture that needs to remain nebulous until we sell it.

Anyway, for those of you who feed your pets home cooked pet food, Dr. Michel offered us some very interesting information, some of which I had actually heard before from her when I interviewed her for a paper I was writing on the topic last year. You should know that Dr. Michel is a big fan of proven, commercial pet food because of the controlled and consistent nature of its production. Yes, I know all about the pet food recall, but Michel's point is that a can of Science Diet I/D is always a can of Science Diet I/D--you and your pet know what is in it. And while she agrees that pets diets do need variety, the simple truth is that is complicated to supplement these diets with the proper amount of vitamins and minerals to make them complete and nutritional.

There is the potential for a slew of variations in every batch of home-prepared pet food ranging from the fat content of the beef, the quality of the ingredients selected and how carefully the person preparing the food is adhering to the recipe. You know that two people can make chocolate chip cookies from the same recipe on the package of semi-sweet morsels and come out with cookies that look and taste different.

And then there is the matter of supplements. Pets have different nutritional requirements than people--people food is not nutritionally balanced for pets. Dr. Michel told us a story about a kitten who had a broken leg because he wasn't getting enough calcium in his home-cooked diet.

Anyway, the good news is that for those who do cook food for their pets, there is a new website: that was developed by veterinary nutritionists at the University of California, Davis. If you click on the section for pet owners, it will provide you with some sample recipes suitable for home preparation as well as a list of the nutritional supplements you need to add to make the recipes complete and balanced. The even better news, however, is that the site sells a product: Balance It--that is a nutritional supplement that can be added to home cooked food to make it pet appropriate. The recipes give directions for how much Balance It to add to each recipe based on the size of the pet consuming the food.

Dr. Michel heartily endorses the product--they use it at Penn--and admits it has made her life a lot easier. If you are going to go to all the trouble to cook for your pet, it seems silly not to include the supplements that will make your effort nutritionally sound.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

First Saturday in May

Those of you who were at Barbaro's birthday party last spring at Delaware Park may remember meeting brothers John and Brad Hennegan, the filmmakers who made the documentary about six horse who were on the road to the 2006 Kentucky Derby, including Barbaro. They showed the documentary, titled The First Saturday in May, in the tent after we saw the NBC documentary about Barbaro and the film has been making the rounds of the national film festival circuit.

Word came from Churchill Downs Inc, yesterday, that they had signed a deal with the Hennegans to promote their new "Kentucky Derby Party" web site through the film's trailers and screenings. Word also came that the Hennegens had inked a deal with a distributor, Truly Indie, a company that helps independent film makers find audiences for their work. According to the press release from Business First of Louisville, Truly Indie is owned by 2929 Entertainment (owners of the landmark Theater Chain) and is co-owned by Mark Cuban, the entrepreneurial owner of the Dallas Mavericks.

I am delighted for the Hennegans that they landed a distributor--the entertainment industry is every bit as tough to crack as the publishing world--and they seemed to have found an outlet that combines the indie film world with the high profile sports world. I wish them the best of luck. I am sure this deal took a lot of persistence, determination and just plain luck to complete based on the sheer number of parties involved!

The new Kentucky Derby website, by the way is designed to connect people who host annual parties (and supply them with officially licensed party goods, I am sure). I don't know how successful it will be but you can't fault Churchill Downs for milking the event from every angel. One week of attendance keeps the track afloat for the rest of the year.

You can view a trailer of the movie here and in case you are going to be in Louisville on Saturday, April 13, you can sign up for tickets here.

So what's the lesson here? Well, Barbaro is still clearly a draw and there's value in trying to keep connecting all the dots. As they say, "You never know..."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pet Insurance Redux

The "Cranky Consumer" in Monday's Wall Street Journal authored an article comparing pet health insurance policies that really did little to shed light on an often confusing subject. Suzanne Barlyn decided to compare the effectiveness of 4 different pet insurance policies by insuring 4 different pets--a fair enough premise. The problem was that she chose 4 pets of widely differing ages, two of whom had chronic conditions which rendered any comparison between policies virtually impossible.

The first rule of pet insurance is that it is only cost effective when the pet is a puppy--with no pre-existing conditions. Frankly, I'm surprised that Ms. Barlyn was able to obtain insurance at all for their 15 year old cat, who actually expired three months after they purchased the insurance. When they tried to collect for fees accrued as a result of the cat's rapidly deteriorating condition, they were told they were not eligible for reimbursement because they occurred during the 30-day waiting period. Even Ms. Barlyn admits, "The terms were laid out clearly in our policy, so we should have known." Well, yeah.

Similarly no surprise on my part when VPI refused to insure a pug with bladder stones without x-rays because of potential complications. Well, yeah. Ultimately VPI did insure said pug but to Ms. Barlyn's surprise, "We were still on the hook for Pablo's chronic skin condition and ....prescription dog food for the bladder stones." Well, yeah.

And Ms. Barlyn somehow finds it unusual when Petshealth Care Plan required her to send her 2 year old pug's health care records--wouldn't have happened with a puppy--and complains that the policy did not cover routine dental care. Some policies do but then the premiums are probably higher per month.

The only part of the article that I found to be fascinating was the fact that there are actually 4 different pet insurance companies to compare. When I purchased pet insurance for my dogs six years ago, VPI was the only game in town. According to the American Pet products manufacturers Association, there are currently two million pet insurance subscribers in the United States--about 3% of pet owners with the number expected to increase.

So viva the marketplace and here's to the educated consumer, which Ms. Barlyn, did little to help create.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Camels Anyone?

It is actually a few days past the actual anniversary of the pet food recall but an article in yesterday's New York Times reminded me of the anguish that owners of poisoned pets endure. The article was about the camel breeding industry in Saudi Arabia, a multi-million dollar enterprise, and mentioned the sudden deaths of as many as 5,000 camels last August for "unexplained circumstances."

The story quotes breeder Fowzn al-Madr, who said, "The camels were dying one after the other. Usually when you have a sickness, it dies with the animals. But all these deaths? This was a new kind of tragedy for us."

It turns out that the camels had been poisoned by food contaminated with an antibiotic salinomycin that is often added to chicken food but is lethal to camels. The mill that manufactured the camel food had tried to increase its output and had made the camel food on a factory line usually reserved for chicken food.

Camels are revered and adored beasts in Saudi Arabia. There are camel beauty pageants, similar to dog and horse shows that are extremely popular and owners arrange parties in the desert (their ranches) to show off their prized animals. The attraction is a combination of nostalgia and human-animal bonding. "When you get to know the camels, you feel love for them," says breeder Haza al-Shammari. "My camels are like my children, my family."

Last month, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia honored this relationship by ordering "payment of 20,000 riyals, about $5,300 for every camel that died from eating the contaminated feed." The article does not specify who is making these payments, the food company or the kingdom, but the price seems to be right. Breeder Maydr is happy to close the book on this unfortunate incident and is grateful for the help. "It's a fair price," he decreed.

I have a feeling that pet owners in the US who lost beloved animals would appreciate similar recognition of their loss.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Calling Dr. Dolittle

When a highly touted and previously successful thoroughbred like War Pass fails to "fire" (catch fire, that is) like he did in the Tampa Bay Derby where he finished dead last, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Anything can happen to a horse, before, during or even after the race, and everyone wants to know what caused such an uncharacteristic performance. The frustrating thing about horse racing is that we may never know.

I know there are horse communicators who profess the ability to hear horses communicate their needs, likes and dislikes, but I am a bit skeptical, perhaps less about their "sixth" sense than about our ability to understand what they are telling us. Truly I understand the frustration that comes with dealing with a silent being--guesswork is basically trial and error--and I hate to sound like I am doubting Dr. Dolittle (because he really is one of my childhood heroes), but I need to see results before I'm a true believer.

Actually right now, I am in dire need of a dog communicator because Amos is just not getting better. Subsequent x-rays of his "elbows" did not reveal "substantial" arthritis as the Penn doctors diagnosed and the acupuncture does not seem to be helping him. I recently read about a placebo effect for pet acupuncture, not on the patient but on the owner, and I wonder if I was duped. He is still limping, always on the right front leg and now he seems to have some sort of intestinal distress. Just recently he seems to be belching a lot--to the point where it wakes him up and he has to move to get comfortable.

Now the two are probably not related, but who knows. At the moment I am relying on the animal-communication skills of my dog-walker who has been known to diagnose her share of mysterious ailments in her clients pets. She is convinced that Amos has Lyme disease, despite the fact that his blood test in October was negative. "Doesn't matter," she says. "It doesn't always show up."

What can I say? My vet is in Japan so we're going to see the other vet in the practice this afternoon for another blood test and a second opinion. Part of me says we should try the antibiotics just to see if it works because nothing else seems to have solved his discomfort. Either that, or its time for the Rimadyl (which of course won't work if it isn't arthritis).

So I sympathize with Nick Zito, trainer of War Pass. Everyone wants an explanation for the horse's behavior but until he gives us one himself, in words we can understand, we're just going to have to make do with being interpretors.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Horses that Heal

From the preferred choice in airport reading, People magazine, comes a wonderful story about the power of horses to heal physical and emotional scars. The current issue has a feature about the 160 acre ranch that Joyce Sterkel runs in Eureka, Montana to help adoptive children deal with emotional problems that can arise from the neglect they experienced as babies. Of course you have already surmised that horses play a pivotal role in the recovery of many of these children.

Apparently of the approximately 20,000 foreign adoptions each year, a small number of children suffer from emotional wounds that emerge as they grow up and try to acclimate to their new families. "For these children," says Sterkel, "the world has not been a safe place. They feel they have to be in control all the time. I try to change that."

Anyone who has ever spent time around a horse soon knows that their size alone gives them a powerful edge in the control department. Children that come to Sterkel's ranch learn to ride and care for horses and to be kind to living beings. For many, the physical motion of horseback riding has a calming effect, according to Sterkel's son-in-law, horse trainer, Bob Acora who also notes: "Kids can't overpower the horses; they have to learn to get along with them."

I'm reminded of Kelly Sumner, the second grade teacher from Sandusky, Ohio who had her class write letters to Barbaro when he was hospitalized at New Bolton Center. She was the only one in her school who did this and many of the other teachers thought she was "nuts", but she wanted to teach her students about compassion and kindness for animals. "Some kids don't come with everything they need," she told me. "This is something we needed to teach."

Bravo to heroes like Sterkel and Sumner who recognize the power of horses to heal, inspire and help create caring individuals. Who can argue with that?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Why I'm Excited about Horton

I am traveling today so excuse the post if it is a bit off topic--the ordeal formerly known as flying requires humor, grace and flexibility--frequent themes in Dr. Seuss, one of my all time favorite geniuses. Yes, I honestly do believe the man was a genius, albeit a very clever and careful one (his estate continues to safeguard his "brand" to this day with an iron fist) who managed to entertain and educate generations of readers about how silly we humans can be.

Naturally when it comes to imparting that lesson, the best teachers are animals (hmm...maybe I'm not so far off topic, after all) and the good doctor's animals are truly some of my best friends. Horton, the elephant, who believes people are worth befriending and defending regardless of their size or station in life, is high on the list. I can't wait to see the new movie about the very wise elephant whose loyalty is my theme song: "I meant what I said and I said what I meant; An elephant is faithful one hundred percent."

I actually have that quote posted above my desk. Consistency, loyalty and saying what you mean are very important to me and I take Horton's words very seriously. Of course, I love many of Dr. Suess' animals--Yertle the Turtle, Gertrude McFuzz and even the sneetches (I think they are animals) but Horton has a special place in my heart. Maybe it's because elephants truly never forget or because they exemplify loyalty, there is something about the trust of these gentle giants that gets me every time.

So if you see me in a kid-friendly movie line this weekend without any little ones in tow, don't be surprised. As far as I'm concerned, Dr. Seuss appeals to the young at heart.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Hot Tip

The power of horse racing never ceases to amaze me. I have just finished reading The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the remarkable memoir by Jean-Dominque Bauby, the editor-in-chief of French Elle, who suffered a massive stroke that resulted in "locked-in" syndrome. After his stroke, Bauby was only able to turn his head and blink his left eye. It is a remarkable piece of writing, made even more remarkable by the fact that he dictated the entire book, letter by letter, blinking his left eye to represent letters of the alphabet.

Each chapter is a tour-de-force of language and memory as Bauby documents the "diving bell" existence of being imprisoned in his body and the "butterfly" memories that permit him to escape. One of those memories involves a day he spent at the race track in Vincennes, France. Bauby and his good friend, Vincent, spent a day at the track as guests of the track correspondent who treated them to a delicious lunch and a great tip on a horse named Mithra-Grandchamp.

Alas, the two, who had promised to bet on the sure winner for the rest of their colleagues in the newsroom where they were working at the time, lingered too long over lunch and were shut out at the betting counter. Apparently, as Bauby writes, "Rumor had turned [Mithra-Grandchamp] into a mythic beast, and everyone was determined to bet on him. All we could do was watch the race and hope..."

Naturally, Mithra-Grandchamp crossed the finish line forty yards ahead of his nearest competitor leaving Vincent to mutter, "Idiots! We're complete idiots! When we get back to the office, we'll be history!"

Bauby uses Mithra-Grandchamp as a metaphor for lost opportunities and a subtle exhortation to take advantage of "the moments of happiness we allowed to drift away." But I find it remarkable that of all the memories he chose to preserve, blink by blink, he recalled a horse race in which he could even remember the horse's name and his margin of victory. I find it fascinating that horse racing creates such an indelible imprint on its spectators.

To be sure, the point of the chapter is not the horse or the race but a pining for those days of "near misses: a race whose result we know beforehand but in which we fail to bet on the winners" told without self-pity, only genuine remorse.

By the way, Bauby and Vincent managed to pay back all the colleagues whose bets they failed to place.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Coming Soon

Mark your calendars! A new exhibit entitled The Horse is scheduled to open at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on May 17. It will run through January 2, 2009 and according to the website, the exhibit will "examine the powerful and continuing relationship between the horse and humans."

The exhibit promises to examine the origins of the horse family, the interactions with humans that led to its domestication and the role the horse has played in shaping and refining human life. "The Horse will celebrate this magnificent animal while presenting one of the most fascinating stories in the history of life on Earth--the close and complex relationship between horses and humans," notes Museum President Ellen V. Futter.

It is interesting to note that the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage is one of the collaborators of the exhibit, so my guess is there will be some spectacular fossils and artifacts from the glory days of the Arabian as well as some from the Museum's own outstanding collection. It is also interesting to note that this exhibit will run concurrently with the one at the Museum of Racing in Saratoga about the recent developments in equine medicine.

The horse has truly had a long and storied existence, going back over 50 million years. I have to believe that all of this attention is good for the passage of the anti-slaughter legislation. It is hard to argue with history...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Howliday Inn

This from the "I could have used this" file....USA Today reports on a new travel trend spotted at some of the country's largest airports: 24 hour pet hotels within close proximity to your departure gate! Currently in existence in Jacksonville, New Orleans and Portland, Oregon, these round the clock boarding facilities eliminate the day-before-take-the-dog-to-the-kennel drill and most boast services that even Miss Phoebe would endorse--beds, non-caged rooms and in-ground swimming pools!

The two biggest operators seem to be Paradise 4 Paws and Pet Paradise and they charge anywhere from $30 to $70 depending on the perks. Paradise 4 Pets is due to open next month near Chicago O'Hare and will have a 22 spot parking lot on site so that customers can take the airport shuttle directly after dropping off Fido.

Pet Paradise already has two locations within a mile of the airports in Jacksonville, Florida and New Orleans and boasts a bevy of pampering services including a dog-bone shaped swimming pool and web cams that let owners check on their "offspring." Not to be outdone, Paradise 4 Pets plans to install flat screen TVs on which pets can watch DVDs of their families.

Got to admit, you can't beat the convenience. My pampered pooches usually stay home with a dog sitter or two but they might like the option of staying in a hotel every once a while--as long as there was room service!

Speaking of which, if anyone knows of any chefs who cook for their pets, please leave me a comment. Phoebe's birthday is coming up......

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

After the Finish Line

When I was in Congressman Ed Whitfield's office last Wednesday and he whipped out his Blackberry to give me names and numbers of people I should get in touch with as part of my research for the article on horse slaughter, one of the first names he mentioned was Bill Heller's. In fact, he called Bill Heller while I was sitting there to tell him to expect my call.

Well I have just finished reading Bill Heller's book, After the Finish Line, The Race to End Horse Slaughter in America, and I know why he was so high on Whitfield's list. If you are at all interested in the topic--not from the eye witness perspective of animal brutality--but from the point of view of what is being done to rescue and re-train thoroughbreds, I highly recommend his work. It is a quick read but incredibly well researched and even uplifting. While there is much that still needs to be done, according to Heller, the thoroughbred racing industry has done a pretty good job of caring for its own and getting the message out that slaughter does not have to be the ultimate fate of horses who can no longer race.

I called Bill last week when I got home from Washington and he is as gracious on the phone as he seems to be in print. He was very interested in my project, told me some reassuring tales about his own escapades with agents and offered his advice and help. I promised I would call him when I finished the book, and I will.

What is interesting about Heller's work is that only 3 years ago when the book came out, the rescue and retirement organizations that he mentions were just blips on the radar screen. The anti-slaughter movement was still in its undercover days and even though individuals in racing, notably John Hettinger, were taking a stand, the issue was pretty much hush-hush.

Just three years later and it is still gaining momentum but has become, I believe, a grass roots movement that is a force in its own right. Heller's book went to press before the anti-slaughter bill made it through the House of Representatives the first time, so the time is clearly right for me to do a follow up. And it is equally the right time to focus on the groundswell of momentum that the Fans of Barbaro have provided to this group.

Every once in a while, I get the timing right. Let's hope I can do the story justice!

Monday, March 10, 2008


Anyone who doubts the strength of the agriculture-related lobby should note the battle being waged over labeling of milk from cows who have been fed hormones to increase their milk production. According to the New York Times on Sunday, a new group, American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology or Afact, has been created to protest the recent popularity of hormone-free milk.

Afact has close ties to Monsanto, the company that (surprise! surprise!) produces the hormone that stimulates milk production in cows as well as to a marketing firm whose founders include a former Monsanto executive. While Monsanto protests its involvement, saying that the group is led by farmers, it does acknowledge that it provided financial support to Afact.

Since consumers were tipped off to the existence of this hormone, more and more of them have made a conscious decision to purchase milk that comes from cows who have not been fed the hormone. In fact, according to the New York Times, "some dairy industry veterans say it's only a matter of time before nearly all of the milk supply comes from cows not treated with the [the hormone] Posilac."

Of course, Afact points to the F. D. A. (note: another federal agency) that maintains there is no significant difference between milk that comes from cows who have been fed the hormones and that that comes from hormone-free cows. So if there is no difference, why make such a fuss about the labels that say so?

Probably because they are working while the technology that was supposed to make them richer by increasing their milk production is not. Kevin Holloway, president of the Monsanto Dairy Unit puts it this way: "Dairy farmer choice to use a variety of F. D. A. approved technologies is at risk."

These farmers are only turning to the corporation that got them into this position to get them out. But once again, the power of the dollar rules the marketplace, this time to the detriment of the farmers who probably paid Monsanto dearly for helping them advance their "technologies."

I point all this out just to indicate the strength of the opposition to the anti-horse slaughter legislation. The agricultural lobby is backed by some extremely large corporations who usually stop at nothing to make a profit.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

More than Leash Laws

There is an article in today's Miami Herald about a bill at the state level that would allow cities in Florida to ban any breed of dog they deem "dangerous" to their communities. This bill is reminiscent of one that has existed in the Miami-Dade area for twenty years that bans pit bulls in that county. It also follows closely behind the recent law in California requiring pet owners to spay or neuter their pets unless they get an exemption for commercial breeding.

I think all of these efforts to control pets are directed at the wrong end of the leash. Quite simply, the apple does not fall far from the tree. If you want responsible pets, then you have to have responsible owners. How about laws that require pet owners to provide food, shelter and veterinary care to their companion animals for the duration of their lives? How about requiring pet owners to take their animals to socialization and obedience training classes?

We have laws that require pet owners to leash them and clean up after them in public places but none that teach them how to be responsible pet owners. The last time I checked, the bare minimum legal requirement for owning a pet was vaccinating it against rabies and distemper but as we all know, this is rarely enforced. You can go to jail or be fined for animal cruelty but only if you are caught.

It seems as if we have unwanted small animals as well as unwanted large animals because we don't require owners to demonstrate that they are capable of providing for living beings in their care. I'm not sure whether or not this should be an age requirement, an educational requirement or some sort of financial commitment made at the time of purchase toward the animal's long-term care (a portion of the purchase price goes into some interest bearing account dedicated to pet care) but I do think it is way to easy to become a pet parent without realizing what the responsibility entails.

And then it is way too easy to get rid of that responsibility.

Dr. Welch Agnew, president of the Florida Animal Control Association said it best: "Banning a breed does nothing to solve dangerous dog problems. All it does is target well-behaved dogs owned by good dog owners--who lose their pets due to this kind of legislation." Not to mention taking away resources from enforcing the laws already on the books that, if enforced, might prevent the "danger" from existing in the first place.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Hit the Birdie?

U.S.A. Today carried the story yesterday about Nationwide Tour golfer Tripp Isenhour who was charged on Wednesday with intentionally killing a hawk. According to the story, the incident occurred on December 12 when Isenhour was filming a video segment for his show, Shoot Like a Pro.

Apparently Isenhour's filming was repeatedly interrupted by a red-shouldered hawk, protected as a migratory species, that made a lot of noise. The newspaper cites court documents that state Isenhour began hitting balls near the bird, (at the time about 300 yds. away) to get it to move. He gave up until the bird re-located within 75 yds.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer Brian Baine indicated in a report that Isenhour allegedly said, "I'll get him now." and aimed for the hawk. Baine wrote: "About the sixth ball came very near the bird's head and [Isenhour] was very excited that it was so close." A few shots more and witnesses say that Isenhour hit the hawk, knocking it out of the tree. It fell to the ground where it lay, bleeding from both nostrils.

Isenhour's sound engineer said no one on the crew intervened, a fact about which they are now remorseful. Isenhour was charged with cruelty to animals and killing a migratory bird. He faces a minimum of 14 months in jail and $1500 in fines, if convicted.

Now here's the clincher. "Americans have no tolerance for cruelty to animals," said Michael Markarian, executive vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States.

I agree. But why is it that the public can be so outraged over Michael Vick's cruelty to dogs and Isenhour's brutality toward an endangered migratory bird, and not seem to be able to convince their government representatives to pass legislation to ban inhumane treatment of horses?

Maybe you can explain it to me.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Which Way is Monticello?

Only in Washington!

I spotted this Thomas Jefferson look-alike as I was leaving the Rayburn Office Building on Wednesday. He was talking to the woman in the photo about his lobbying efforts for something to do with Jefferson. I only overheard the conversation in which he admitted that he had been doing this for a while and had not yet been successful in bringing Jefferson proper recognition he deserved. I asked my cab driver if the appearance of people in colonial garb was unusual and he just smiled. "We see everything here. This is Washington," he told me.

I am on the road again, en route to Florida for a week. I can't promise any more Thomas Jefferson sightings but you never know. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Washington Rehash

I am back from Washington and letting all the information from the past two days settle and percolate a bit. It was an eye-opening experience for me, the highlight of which was the time I spent yesterday with Ed Whitfield, Representative from Kentucky, one on one.

When I arrived at Congressman Whitfield's office, his aides were actually waiting for me--quite the switch from the previous day when we spent a lot of time waiting for the powers that be--and they quickly spirited me down a few floors to the committee room where the Congressman was in a budget hearing. No problem, they went in and got him and he gave me his undivided attention for a half-hour, one on one, in a private office (with walls that went all the way up to the ceiling--a rarity from what I have seen in the overcrowded offices of state representatives). Staci Hancock was supposed to be with me but family illness at home prevented her from making the trip and it was because of Staci's prior relationship with Ed Whitfield that I am sure I was treated as such an honored guest.

I thanked him profusely for making time in his day to see me and he said he was actually delighted to meet me. I told him of my intention to write about this experience--either as a chapter in the book or as a separate article or both--and he seemed genuinely delighted that the issue of horse slaughter was going to receive additional press. He actually whipped out his Blackberry at one point and gave me names and numbers of some people he thought I should talk to as part of my research.

Whitfield, as I have previously mentioned, is a champion of both the anti-slaughter legislation and the ban on steroids in racing. It is interesting that in Kentucky, a state teeming with almost as many vets as race horses, that he has not received too much flack for his position and even more interesting that, as he said, the "Farm Bureau has never raised the issue with [him]." He originally got involved with the anti-slaughter legislation through the Keck family, who owned Ferdinand, 1986 Kentucky Derby winner who was slaughtered in Japan. He is proud to have been a part of the 109th Congress that passed the bill in the House.

Whitfield currently is the owner of a thoroughbred in training in California ("No races yet, just a lot of bills," he smiled) and he and his wife have a few horses on their Kentucky farm, one of them a draft horse that his wife purchased at the New Holland auction for $375 along with his "best friend" a mini-pony for $125.00. To say he "gets it," is an understatement.

But he is also incredibly realistic and wonders whether or not this bill will ever make it back to the Floor for a vote unless Nancy Pelosi takes a special interest in it. Yes, there are always other things on every one's plates, but, as he pointed out, animal welfare is equally as important as the naming of two post offices, which is the only vote they took two nights ago.

So if I were a dedicated member of the Americans Against Horse Slaughter, I might be curious enough to try and find out whether any of Nancy Pelosi's children or grandchildren ride or keep horses...

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Halls of Congress Are Long and Winding

Another day, another opportunity to convince the lawmakers of this country that slaughtering horses is just plain wrong. That is the mindset of the 100 plus members of Americans Against Horse Slaughter that have descended on Washington DC these past two days to make their points in one on one meetings with those in positions to make a difference.

Last night at a reception hosted by Alex Brown, I heard remarks from some of the leaders of this organization and what a remarkable, inspirational group they are. Paula Bacon spoke of the last slaughter plant in America in Kauffman Texas now "flapping in the wind." Nancy Perry the lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States told stories of the "Miracle Horses," those horses who were inside that plant when it actually closed and whom the Humane Society rescued. John Hollander, journalist who wrote a book about horse slaughter, is adopting one of those horses, named Sweet Pea.

And so went the connections among this group of dedicated warriors who draw strength from each other. They are tired, they are all here on their own dimes and as Liz Ross from the Animal Welfare Institute said, they yearn for the day when they all go out of business. But until then, rest assured they are not going away.

Here's another tip I learned yesterday. If you are ever wandering the halls of Congress and suddenly find yourself in dire need of a Diet Coke, head straight for the offices of Georgia's representatives. As I found out yesterday when I saw cases of Coke an Diet coke go wheeling by, Georgia's reps have an endless supply of each and yes, they share, if you ask nicely.

I also paid a visit to the offices of the AVMA yesterday for the other side of the story but more about that tomorrow. Now, I am heading to meeting with Ed Whitfield, Representative from Kentucky who is a champion of the anti-slaughter legislation.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Washington Ho!

It is no secret that man has long had a long and storied relationship with horses. Literal horsepower built this country, carried us into battle, plowed our fields, delivered our messages and helped us explore new territories. Now, according to David W. Anthony, it seems equines are also responsible for the spread of the English language.

In a new book entitled The Horse, The Wheel,and Language, Anthony explores the role that horses played in the dissemination of the Indo-European language family, of which English is a member. Christine Kenneally reviews Anthony's tome in Sunday's New York Times Book Review and says that Anthony makes a persuasive case for the origin of the Indo-European mother tongue, which is known as Proto-Indo-European, in what is now southern Ukraine and Russia. "Anthony is not the first scholar to make the case that Proto-Indo-European came from this region," Kenneally writes. "But given the immense array of evidence he presents, he may be the last one who has to."

Horses are important in the proliferation of this mother tongue because they literally mobilized Proto-Indo-European speakers helping them become mobile herders and later warriors. "The impact of horses on the reach of language is particularly important to Anthony, and he conveys his excitement at working out whether ancient horses wore bits (and were therefore ridden by Proto-Indo-Europeans) by comparing their teeth to those of modern domesticated and wild horses," Kenneally writes.

According to Kenneally, Anthony also cites "remarkable genetic analyses suggesting that although all the domesticated horses in the world may have come from many different wild mothers, they might all share a single father."

As I embark upon my Washington adventure I think it is important to remember not only the depths of man's relationship with horses but also the dual nature of this relationship. Like other animals, man has both depended on and been dependent on horses and therein lie the two positions surrounding the legislation before Congress. It is my intention to cover this debate from an objective perspective so be prepared to read about both sides of the story.

After all, that is what I do.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Friend in Washington

According to, on February 29, Representative Ed Whitfield of Kentucky (Republican) opened the televised congressional hearing on the use of steroids in sports by "claiming leaders of horse racing have repeatedly failed on promises to self-regulate medication issues." Whitfield, by the way, is a champion of the anti-slaughter movement and I will be covering his meeting with long-time equine advocate Staci Hancock, during my time in Washington, D.C.

Staci told me that Whitfield was one of the people who got her involved in the cause. It was Staci's efforts, writing letters to all living owners of Kentucky Derby winners, that got the Jacksons involved in the anti-slaughter movement.

Whitfield also wants to ban steroids from the sport of racing and made no bones about his position. "England, France, all of Europe, Japan, South Africa, Dubai, Australia: All of the major racing jurisdictions have banned the use of drugs still commonplace in America," he told the committee. "England. . . banned steroids in racing over 30 years ago."

He also wasn't afraid to name names, citing hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who told him "he had seen enough." According to Whitfield, Van Berg believes that
"drugs ranging from medications like steroids and clenbuterol to prohibited substances like EPO (erythropoietin) are slowly destroying horse racing in America."

The issue of drugs in racing has been around nearly as long as the anti-slaughter legislation. "Through the years--horsemen's groups, who claim that they represent every trainer and every horse owner, have been in the forefront to stop the adoption of more stringent drug rules," Whitfield elaborated. "And they have been, and continue to be, successful, to the detriment of the sport."

Personally I don't think that racing has much choice. If they don't clean up their act, there simply won't be any audience. I am very much looking forward to meeting this equine advocate.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Retirement Programs for Thoroughbreds

One way that racing could improve its public image is by mandating participation by owners and trainers in equine rescue, retirement and rehabilitation programs through contributions from their starting fees. Emerald Downs racetrack in Washington has adopted such a policy beginning with the 2008 season. According to an article on The website, "Horse owners at Emerald downs can make contributions to accredited thoroughbred rescue, retirement and rehabilitation facilities through a voluntary $1 per start minimum contribution from their horsemen's bookkeeper accounts."

All contributions to what has been dubbed, The Prodigious Fund, in honor of a former racehorse who finished his career at Emerald Downs at the age of 10, will be dispersed at the end of the racing year to approved organizations and Emerald Downs has committed to matching every dollar contributed.

It is a concept not lost on Fan of Barbaro, Shelley Abrams, who has been trying to organize a similar program at Philadelphia Park. Abrams' program, R. A. C. E. (Retirement Assistance and Caring For Equines) is based on owners contributing a percentage of their purses to support equine welfare. "Kind of like a 401K for horses," Abrams told me when we spoke over year ago. She also has instituted the similar "Pony-Up" program for trainers at Philadelphia Park to contribute a percentage of their winnings.

Abrams, who owns race horses herself, is passionate about intervening in the process of retiring horses from the track, and devotes herself to finding homes for horses who can no longer race, to prevent them from going to slaughter.

Abrams drew inspiration from Barbaro, who she said, made it "possible for all these people to wake up and pay attention to what was going on in racing. He hung in there long enough for the two bills to be re-introduced in the House and the Senate. The rest is up to us."

As far as I know, Abrams will be among those going to Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week to lobby for the passage of these bills.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Fool's Gold

On the heels of yesterday's post in which I discussed the slow death of thoroughbred racing, comes word from The Motley Fool investment site that Churchill Downs (Nasdaq: CHDN) is on its list of "deathbed" stocks. "Revenues dry up. Margins contract. Profits evaporate. All of these signs suggest that their condition is worsening--a financial death rattle, if you will," predicts the Fool.

Churchill Downs, the company owns, more than Churchill Downs, the racetrack. Its operations, according to the Fool, include "tracks across the country [Calder, for one], off-track betting facilities, an interest in a telecommunications provider for the pari-mutuel and simulcasting industries, and a joint venture with ...Magna entertainment to a pay-TV service to broadcast races into Ireland and the U.K."

Enough diversity, one might think, to offset decreasing attendance and daily handle at the actual facility, but according to the Fool, "a look at Churchill Downs' balance sheet makes it seems as though it won't make it to the home stretch."

It is true that Churchill Downs, the racetrack, literally banks on Kentucky Derby week to finance its existence for the rest of the year. And while it is never wise to put all of ones eggs, financial or otherwise, in one basket, it is hard to imagine that the lure of one of the nation's most storied sporting events will ever diminish. Yet, the fact remains that aside from one week, Churchill Downs, the track, and by extension, the company, are feeling the effects of a dying fan base.

Diversification in the form of slot machines has been one answer in other states but I think that answer merely puts a band-aid on the true problem: lack of appeal to a diverse crowd. Horsemen will tell you that Delaware Park and Philadelphia Park are reaping bigger purses, hence a higher caliber of races, since slots came to their tracks. But still that has done little to boost attendance among the crowd headed toward the casino entrances.

Thoroughbred racing needs a major makeover beginning with its own "house." Banning steroids and horse-slaughter would go a long way toward broadening the sport's appeal.