Jeff Griffith / Unsplash

Kentucky Derby Horses, Coal Miners, and the Grim Sacrifices They Share

Profit and death are intertwined in these Appalachian pastimes and workdays. What happens next?

HORSES AND CHILDREN have this much in common: they are moody, prone to biting, and difficult to control. As a little girl, I too was feral, rough, and rowdy; I too hated fences. Later, I would also learn healthy boundaries from horses: Try to throw me and I will yank on your mouth. Walk behind you without notice, and I’ll be kicked in the head. This is the kind of clear contract I can appreciate. Horses were probably the first living things I looked in the eyes and told no in my big voice, and the first big creatures I cared for. Little boys were not cutting it (in reply to a kid who asked me to be his girlfriend in second grade, I said, “Seth, we’re eight”), but horses were on my level. They were as big as I wanted to be—when I watched their lungs expand and contract, it looked like the living embodiment of my ambition. I was going to make good changes in the world, and I knew this would take strength. Horses taught me strength—and self-respect, and how to be loud. It was love at first sight. It was magic.

My memories of our family’s limited time in Kentucky are a blurry montage of elementary school hallways and backyard play-pretend, but Eight Belles remains in full focus. A rare female in major races, Eight Belles is a half ton of rippling muscle with a dark gray satin coat and ombré tail, her small eyes black with adrenaline. I loved her too.

Eight Belles came in second, behind Big Brown at the 2008 Kentucky Derby. I watched on television as both of her front ankles promptly snapped when she crossed the finish line. My parents immediately changed the channel as she was euthanized on the track. Horses can’t recover from broken legs because their light bones and heavy bodies make healing too long and complicated a process for the animal to bear, physically or mentally. I do not remember the horror of watching Eight Belles’s legs snap, but I vaguely remember an adult telling me about it afterward, bending down to my level to inform me that there had been a bizarre accident on the track. The incident was tragic, we all knew that, but we also wanted to believe it was a fluke. Sometimes bad things happen and no one can see them coming and adults explain it all to you later—this I did understand as a child.  

Kentucky Derby winner Elwood in 1904. / Wikimedia Commons
 

What I didn’t know at the time was that critics of the racing industry were decrying breeding practices that prioritized speed over strength. Sally Jenkins, a Washington Post sportswriter, would later write that Eight Belles had champagne-glass ankles.” A 2020 study based at the University College Dublin found that roughly 97 percent of Thoroughbred racehorses are descended from one stallion, Northern Dancer, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1964. The goal since then has been to emphasize Northern Dancer’s champion traits to bring in the return on investment that owners and the sports-betting industry expect. Everyone wants a record breaker. This has led to what breeders call increasing genetic “unsoundness” or instability—racehorses are bred to have bulky muscles, with less regard for how durable their skeletons are. In other words, Eight Belles was not built to live, she was built to run. To make a profit.

Eight Belles was not built to live, she was built to run. To make a profit.

In 2022, anti-racing activist Patrick Battuello said his Freedom of Information Act requests to racing commissions revealed at least 917 thoroughbred racing deaths in the United States, where death rates are especially high (due partly to poor steroid regulation and overly intense training). That’s an average of 2.5 horses a day. It would not have occurred to me as an eight-year-old that bodies—human or not—could be used in this way. Now I know differently: in this country, we break bones.

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I live in West Virginia now, fifteen minutes away from the Kentucky border. I’m close to bones again—I recently suffered a knee injury that put me in physical therapy. In the PT office, which is littered with Bibles, I do squats with men who look like my father but with leathery skin and more callouses. They do hip abductions in blue jeans and almost all have workplace injuries that they seem embarrassed of—they lifted something and strained their spines; unlimited hours in a long-hauler hurt their legs. All they want is to get back to work. All they want is to not look lazy. I hope they see my young legs and know that injury is not weakness. No one cracks the Bibles, but I silently pray that this fluorescent room and its yoga balls offer a partial substitute for the mountains of Oxy that have been deliberately overprescribed to Appalachians for decades. This room has taught me patience and my own fragility. It’s taught me to steal time from the hobgoblins of productivity. I go here because of my mother’s health insurance, which I will lose in less than three years. “Insurance” is one of the first words on my lips in the “Do you have any questions for us?” portion of job interviews. 

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In 2020, Chester Thomas, a former coal executive, drove past a crowd of Black Lives Matter activists protesting the murder of Breonna Taylor outside of Churchill Downs to attend the Kentucky Derby with his horse, Mr. Big News. Many of those who sit in Millionaires Row box seats for the Derby are participants in the long con of the oil, coal, and gas industry that is nipping at the heels of my future. Mr. Big News brought in an impressive return on investment during his short racing career, and that day was no exception. “He ran his guts off!” a cherry-faced Thomas told a trackside news crew after the race, Michelob Ultra precariously in hand. Mr. Big News had taken third place that day, bringing in $300,000 of the Derby’s $3 million betting purse. The reporter wanted to know if the horse would appear at the Preakness Stakes two weeks later; Thomas said yes, “if he comes out of the race good.” As in, physically intact.

Three hours east and west of Churchill Downs, Kentucky’s coal miners work long hours to make quotas in the dark with little ventilation.

In 2012, Thomas’s company, Green River Collieries, was sold to Alliance Coal Corporation. In 2022, Alliance appealed a ruling awarding a former coal miner, Bobby McPeek, workers’ compensation for black lung disease allegedly contracted in Alliance’s mines. Alliance argued (unsuccessfully) that the miner’s debilitating respiratory difficulties were caused by asthma unrelated to his work. For reference, miners typically work between eight and twelve hours a day in a constant haze of coal dust. If you’re a Central Appalachian coal miner who’s been working for twenty-five years or more, there’s a one-in-five chance you have black lung. The disease is entirely preventable, but dust control slows down production, so cheating on “dust tests” to avoid regulatory penalties is a common practice among coal companies. Three hours east and west of Churchill Downs, Kentucky’s coal miners work long hours to make quotas in the dark with little ventilation. They suffer black lung, in addition to myriad kinds of broken bones. In other words, they run their guts off. 

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When Eight Belles died on the track at Churchill Downs, the cameras cut away instantly. Blame was shifted away from the toxic aspects of the horse-breeding and horse-racing industry and onto the filly herself. “We’ve had more horses injured on the farm than we have on the racetrack,” said her trainer, Larry Jones, in an NBC interview. “They do more injury to themselves.” 

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When Bobby McPeek dies, Alliance Coal will say it was asthma. Here is something else horses, workers, and children share in common: we can smell a lie.

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P V & K Coal Company, Clover Gap Mine, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky. 1946. / Wikimedia Commons
 

Eight Belles, all one thousand pounds of her, was buried in the garden of the Kentucky Derby Museum, where I rode the plastic horse-shaped racing simulator countless times as a kid. A public ceremony and memorial race were held for her trouble, a special plaque placed over her grave. Most racehorses get no such recognition for their labor, and most people don’t either. Just across the Kentucky border in Matewan, West Virginia, sits the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, which helps public school teachers integrate accurate labor history into their lessons. Even as I write this, Don Blankenship, a union-busting West Virginia coal baron who served a year in federal prison for safety violations that killed twenty-nine men in 2010, is talking about building his own museum across town displaying WWI-era planes that were used to terrorize striking miners on Blair Mountain. He has also promised a go-kart track. Blankenship still holds sway in his native Mingo County, where he giveth and taketh away like a demigod. If he builds his exhibit—and he certainly has enough money to—the stories of dying miners will continue to be suppressed. Eight Belles’s death was very public, an embarrassment a crowd of people witnessed in real time, something that endangers the popularity and profit of the racing industry. That is why she gets a race; that is why she gets a plaque.

It takes an extraordinary death to get a public memorial on the company dime.

Many coal miners die of black lung before their claims are ever settled, known to no one but their families and lawyers. It takes an extraordinary death to get a public memorial on the company dime. Of course, the memorial will be a form of propaganda too. There is no crying in business.  

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My best friend in Kentucky was a neighbor girl named August Lee who was a few years older than me. We both loved horses and the ritual of the Derby. I think both of us still do. One afternoon we decided to hold a race of our own. August Lee told me we needed to rest up before our big event, that if we covered our arms with a special sleeping lotion she had made and climbed into her treehouse, we could hibernate in our sleeping bags. No one had told us yet to run faster and faster, work harder and harder. We were going to rest. I believed her with my whole heart. Sixteen years before I would read about horse ankles splintering and do leg lifts with the overworked fathers of West Virginia, I laid down in that treehouse and waited for the magic to put me to sleep. Sometimes I think I am still waiting.

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My time in Kentucky and West Virginia taught me a working-class environmentalism that puts Eight Belles and the miners on the same side of one long picket line stretching back through centuries. We are fellow creatures, begging to be prioritized over profit. I think about the old miners’ song by Florence Reece, Which Side Are You On? now repurposed by groups like Climate Defiance as they interrupt talks by oil, coal, and gas barons. I also think about the increasingly militarized response to climate protestors throughout the South. In Atlanta, Stop Cop City “forest defender” protestors were recently greeted with a heavy-duty police vehicle called the Beast, made for bone crushing. They were beaten with batons. The state troopers who shot and killed Manuel Paez Terán were not charged. I could have been in that crowd. 

My worldview has since crystallized, has split into two clean halves: those who break bones and those who have their bones broken. Solidarity means recognizing that when the chips are down, my body, any body, could be next. This is a threat, but it is also a promise. I am not alone. I will never fight for a more just world by myself. Each night, I strap on my ankle weights and strengthen my bones in the dark, humming Florence Reece’s old tune in imagined harmony with my fellow creatures. Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?  

Hannah Wilson-Black is an environmental journalist and 2023 Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow based in Huntington, West Virginia. Her work has appeared in Grist, Terrain.org, and the Daily Yonder.