In the first four games of the 2019 NBA finals, Golden State star Kevin Durant did not play due to a strained right calf. Once Golden State fell behind the Toronto Raptors three games to one, Durant was derided by some fans and media members for not playing when his team needed him to avoid elimination. Durant unwisely played in game 5 in the series and suffered a devastating ruptured right Achilles tendon that is difficult for an athlete to fully recover from in less than a year and perhaps never will. Then in game 6, Durant’s teammate Klay Thompson went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament or ACL.

In the wake of the injury to Durant, there was some criticism of Golden State for playing him, but not much. When Thompson went down basically nothing was said other than it was unfortunate and that injuries are part of the game. There was no outcry about basketball being a brutal game or laments that drugs like the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory Toradol are given to players in pain on gameday so they can perform.

Similarly, when horrific injuries have occurred during NFL games, such as spinal injuries to wide receiver Darryl Stingley and linebacker Ryan Shazier, there has been plenty of grief and sympathy expressed, but no widespread calls to ban football or accusations that drugs are to blame.

Contrast this “injuries are just part of the game” attitude to what happened after Eight Belles suffered an injury just past the finish line in the 2008 Kentucky Derby that required her to be euthanized (unlike human athletes, horses cannot be reasoned with to rest after surgeries to repair injuries). A cacophony of assertions immediately ensued about the cruelty of horse racing, along with unfounded allegations that the filly was drugged. Never mind that since the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 there had never before been a fatality in the race.

An objective observer would agree that there is a much different standard for how the public views injuries to human athletes and equine athletes. The usual explanation is that human beings can choose whether to enter a boxing ring, drive a racecar at high speeds, or risk brain damage playing football, whereas horses don’t have a choice and therefore horse sports for human entertainment are inhumane.

But there is more at work than this explanation and it has to do with the emotional affection Americans have for certain species of animals. For instance, most Americans would find it repugnant to read that the Humane Society International estimates that “30 million dogs across Asia, including stolen family pets, are still killed for human consumption every year.” Another example: while horse slaughter is banned in the United States, a reputable survey found that 65% of South Koreans are willing to eat horse meat. Conversely, beef is a staple in the United States but cattle are revered by Hindus in India.

Such vastly contrasting cross-cultural perspectives are partly attributable to what social psychologists call “motivated reasoning,” wherein people evaluate issues or arguments in a biased way to support a preferred conclusion. Likewise, proponents and opponents of horse racing see the issue of injuries and fatalities in an entirely different context. The former generally agree that “some” reforms are necessary in order to improve safety and the latter mostly want the sport abolished.

If horse racing is to have a viable future, the industry must unify behind changes that can greatly reduce horse fatalities, while at the same time present a cogent argument as to why some injuries and accidents are inevitable in sport or life.

Uncompromising adversaries of horse racing won’t be persuaded but the general public is the target audience. The problem is that too many insiders in racing are prisoners of their own motivated reasoning and don’t see the peril. Meanwhile, their sport is running out of time to take actions that will make sure there will never be another outrageous and largely preventable Santa Anita-like carnage.

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