Recently I found myself at Monmouth Park racetrack at the top of the Jersey Shore for a family reunion party.
It was maybe the fourth time I had been at a racetrack. Once, as a teenager, a neighbor took me to the trotters at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island as a kind of rite of passage. Then on two occasions I had to pick up horses at Belmont Park. And quite a few years later…this happened.
The fact that I showed up made me chuckle a little.
See, most people who have known me for any length of time would probably be surprised to hear me confess to being a hater of anything more substantial than pineapple on pizza, but here you have it: I was a hater of horse racing.
How that came to be was that like most hate, mine developed through a combination of outrage, passion and ignorance. I might still be in that state if not for a young racetrack groom named Casey Brister who I became acquainted with.
Casey was an artist, and in the off season used her formidable talents to capture the souls of horses on paper and canvas. I commissioned a drawing of my OTTB mare Lola, and through that experience we became online friends. Barely 20 years old then but with an “old soul,” Casey began to slowly open my eyes with her blog about life on the backstretch. At first, I half expected that it was going to be an exposé of the pitiful lives of these poor horses, victims of uncaring owners, shady trainers and unscrupulous vets. I was wrong.
Written from the point of view of someone whose job it was to care for the horses and whose heart frequently led her to break the cardinal rule at the track to not fall in love with a racehorse, it quickly occurred to me that we were much more alike than different. Not one to seek accolades, she chronicled the dedication and caring given not on occasion but every day by the good people she worked with on that side of the track.
My heart began to soften. It had been hardened after I had purchased an OTTB mare we call Lola at an auction that you don’t want to be at if you’re a horse. The day after I hauled her home she was seriously lame, and my vet reported the bad news that she had significant soft tissue damage and had been drugged to mask the symptoms.
When I later found out her identity, I was able to pull up the video of her last race in which she had been injured—exactly two weeks before I picked her up at that auction! Her JC ownership was transferred multiple times over a couple of days, perhaps to help obscure who was responsible for her fate.
My anger upon learning this was seething, but kept mostly in the background as I went about the work of rehabilitating Lola. The embers were fanned into flames the next spring when the Fox Hill mare, Eight Belles, was euthanized on the track at Churchill Downs after finishing second to Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. I became a hater that day. I didn’t know how to process my grief and so I allowed it to become anger that sought out the bizarre and misguided comfort that comes from hate.
You see, hate allows us to think we are doing something about an issue when we are actually doing nothing. I have come to think of it as social activism for wimps. But hate is not a normal state for me. It was a manifestation of my untreated grief, anger, and outrage stemming from my love of an animal. And to love it had to return. I needed an opportunity to rid myself of this destructive emotion, and life provided one.
Through her words, Casey introduced me into her world, the world of Thoroughbred horse racing. It turned out that it was a world, perhaps busier, but with the same reverence, compassion and love for these majestic animals as we experience at our own home barn.
She was generous in the sharing of her experiences and so I became educated. Education is the enemy of hate, and this unassuming ambassador for goodness in the racing world, scarcely one-third my age, unknowingly became my teacher. I began to see things through different eyes, the eyes of knowledge rather than the eyes of ignorance. It was a was a stark reminder about a principle that I had once read about but didn’t think it applied to me: “A bar against all information, proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is ‘contempt prior to investigation’.”
In an almost “Disney-esque” epilogue, Casey’s heart was broken when Teddy, one of her favorites at her racing stable was claimed after a race. A couple of years later, and as promised, the claiming trainer called Casey’s boss and said to “tell that girl who liked Teddy that he’s ready to retire.” Happily, now Casey and Teddy belong to each other.
Truth be told, I still have some issues with racing, but they are not much different from my concerns with the competitive disciplines that I have been part of in the horse world: race day medications, treatment and care during the competitive years, and pensions for ongoing care when their competitive careers are over. I can live much easier with my concerns now, knowing that there are people like Casey at racetracks all over America.
About the Author
Thomas Gumbrecht began riding at age 45 and eventually was a competitor in lower level eventing and jumpers. Now a small farm owner, he spends his time working with his APHA eventer DannyBoy, his OTTB mare Lola, training her for a second career, and teaching his grandson about the joy of horses. He enjoys writing to share some of life’s breakthroughs toward which his horses have guided him.