Thoroughbred Racing and Me, One Year Later

April 18, 2009 § 2 Comments

As of today, it’s exactly two weeks away from the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby, and I can’t help but reflect on what happened at, or after, the 134th running. Being present at Churchill Downs on the day thoroughbred racing’s most visible tragedy (yes, I think, bigger than Barbaro) threw me (and Scott) into an emotional tailspin that lasted weeks (if you’re a glutton for punishment you can revisit my post from directly after the Derby here, the letter I wrote to the New York Times regarding it here, and my shocked post when the NYT actually published said letter here).

At the time, I just wasn’t sure what to do — did I just need to be tougher, more callous, more unaffected? Should I turn my back on the sport I’d loved since my childhood, in protest? Would that really change anything?

(And, to be fair, the sport has changed in the past year. Steroids are now banned. Front toe grabs as well. And the NTRA created a safety alliance that investigated, and fully accredited, the Churchill Downs facilities. That’s not to say all is well, but change has happened — and, frankly, Ray Paulick’s latest column sums up the current state of the sport better than I could.)

I soul-searched the rest of that Triple Crown season, and I ended up doing the exact opposite of turning my back: I got more deeply involved in horse racing than I’d ever been before.

Scott and I drove to Kentucky.
We visited farms, we managed to not get murdered by Dynaformer, we made amends with Birdstone, we regretfully told Afleet Alex we had no peppermints in our pockets.
We went to Keeneland and Laurel and Pimlico and I whispered “Come home safe” to myself before the start of every race.
We started paying attention to the sport year-round.
I started contributing “race analysis” to KentuckyDerby.com (I use the quotes because that’s mainly meant picking grays and fillies).

No one has come out and asked me this question, but it’s one I ask myself frequently — how can I still be so involved with a sport where such tragic things happen? It’s taken the past year of embedding myself even more deeply in the sport that I’ve come to realize the answer.

Every week, every month, I see an obituary. Secret Savings was euthanized at age 17 due to complications from laminitis. Mine Tonight was euthanized at age 26 after breaking a leg. Alysheba was euthanized at age 25 after falling in his stall and injuring his right hind femur.

I’m not citing these examples to be morbid.

I’m citing them because I’ve come to believe that the circumstances that befell Eight Belles could have happened to her 20 years later, in a pasture somewhere in Kentucky with her final foal by her side. Same with Barbaro, George Washington, and Pine Island (well, except for the foal part).

Horses are thousand-pound animals built on fragile, spindly legs; what happened to Eight Belles was ugly, awful, and tragic, but, sadly, it wasn’t unusual — it’s the nature of the beast. Maybe that’s stating the obvious, but until I accepted that flaw of biology, I couldn’t also allow myself to appreciate the flip side of the coin — the beauty, the determination, and the heart that ride along those spindly legs.

I don’t think, in coming to this place, that I’ve become any less callous — these tragedies will and do continue to occur, and continue to touch me deeply, as I believe they do for players at every levels of the sport — but I have come to a place where I feel like I see the big picture, and not everything in the frame is ugly.

It took a year, and it was a bumpy ride. but I’m here.

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§ 2 Responses to Thoroughbred Racing and Me, One Year Later

  • Ben says:

    I know almost nothing about horse racing, so feel free to shoot down the following thoughts if they don’t make any sense. But, I’m not sure I follow your logic on Eight Belles and the other horse deaths you mention.

    First, doesn’t another 20 years make a difference? We expect age to bring deterioration and death. When it happens young, it is more of a tragedy.

    Second, are thoroughbreds more likely to break their legs and have to be euthanized? Is the breeding for pure speed making them more susceptible to life-threatening injury? Is it really a flaw of biology–the nature of the beast? Do wild horses, or non-thoroughbreds suffer similar fates at similar rates?

  • shampoosolo says:

    Sorry Ben, I’m just seeing your comment now … Miami and all.

    I never meant to sound as though I don’t think what happened to Eight Belles was a tragedy. Every breakdown and euthanization, be it on the track or in a foaling stall, is a tragedy — what I’m saying is that, by immersing myself in it moreso this past year, I’ve come to see that those tragedies happen anywhere, anytime, to any horse at all, young or old, on the track or in a pasture or in a stall (so, those 20 years don’t always make a difference).

    The question about breeding is a good one — thoroughbreds are bred for speed, probably too much so (I still stand by the crazy-talk recommendation I made in the NYT letter, to breed for and reward longevity). I’m not sure anyone can answer the question of thoroughbreds vs. wild horses or even thoroughbreds vs. quarter horses; so many different variables .

    I don’t know if I’ve really answered your questions, or even made a clear point here in the original post now, but, oh, look, some cheese. I think I’ll eat it.

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