I know readers come here to “lose” themselves in horses; for many of you to gain some distance, some relief, from daily stress, from real-life losses great and small.
I know that because, like every writer, I read the reactions—the comments these days—to my work and to the work of my colleagues on Horse Network and elsewhere.
I write mostly about racing here, about its horses and its people. Sometimes that writing can rise a bit above mere reportage and strike a chord. That happened last month when I wrote about the one-eyed Kentucky Derby-hopeful racehorse Finnick the Fierce and his loss.
It happened again a few Saturday’s ago when I wrote about Enable and her career-long jockey, Frankie Dettori, about the graceful gesture made to me by Frankie while I lived in Dubai.
It happened later that same day when I reported the stunning victory of filly Swiss Skydiver over favored Kentucky Derby-winner Authentic in Saturday’s Preakness.
The hugely positive reader reaction to those stories both surprised and interested me. Only one of those stories focused on victory, two on ultimate defeat. What all involved had in common—Finnick the Fierce, Enable, Swiss Skydiver, their riders and connections—was that, win or lose, all overcame some degree of adversity with the help of human faith and a dose of human love. What they all had in common was the courage to challenge that adversity, to stare loss in its eye hoping it would blink.
One thing I’ve come to like writing about racing for Horse Network is some comments reflect a dislike of racing, a dislike boiled down to a simple declarative statement: “Horseracing is cruel.”
That may seem an odd like on my part. But I believe those commenters really mean “Horseracing is cruel to the horse.” It’s a comment on the practice, not my writing about it, so I’ve learned not to take it personally. It’s actually a kind of compliment that some people will read something I’ve written about a subject they don’t like.
The true mark of intelligence
We live in a bisected world. In politics especially, we must take a side; or so we are told by the true believers on either tiny tip of The Bell Curve. That must has extended to other areas of our lives: Yes or no, like or dislike, fer it or agin it.
But there is a more nuanced alternative. One eloquently put forth by F. Scott Fitzgerald , who famously wrote The Great Gatsby. You may have read it in high school. It’s considered by many THE Great American Novel.
For me, he wrote more famously: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
More famously because he really was writing about his character, Jay Gatsby, a man outwardly promoting himself as a generous non-drinking dandy in the Gilded Age of the Roaring Twenties, inside harboring a mysterious past. Fitzgerald was writing even about himself, the troubled alcoholic inside the glamorous celebrated writer.
Just as the sport of horseracing is bisected into those who like it and those who do not, so too are those who like it bisected.
I believe all choices in life are choices between “love” or “money,” between emotional attachment or material gain. So it is with those who are fond of racing, a choice between love of the horses or love of the money one can gain from them. For me, there is little co-mingling.
I once had a colleague who worked in the racing media industry for decades. An amateur handicapper and light bettor, he never went near the horses because, he said jokingly, “One end bites and the other end kicks.”
Me? I’m in it for the horses. At Meydan in Dubai or wherever else in the world I go, I head straight for the stables, to the unsaddling area after a race. The largest bet I ever placed was $1 on the mare Royal Delta in a fun media pool for the 2013 Dubai World Cup won by Animal Kingdom.
Okay, full disclosure: the other weekend, I made a 50-cent straight Trifecta bet—that’s the first three finishers in order—for the Preakness: Swiss Skydiver, Authentic and, whoops(!), Mr. Big News, the three horses I most recently wrote about for Horse Network. Incidentally, a 50-cent win bet paid $620. Ouch.
Maybe I’ll save my four bits next time.
Still, I don’t expect my “scribbling” will change anyone’s mind about horseracing. But I do have hope you’ll take Fitzgerald’s observation to heart and consider both sides as-and-if you read on.
Horseracing is Janus-faced
When a horse wins or loses a race, the result can ripple through the lives of the many people connected to that horse and that outcome. A horserace almost always is a fragment of a much larger story, a single stroke of color on a much larger canvas.
Horseracing can be kind to both horses and their people.
Everyone knows the remarkable story of Secretariat, the horse that became a national celebrity with his Triple-Crown victory in 1973, each of the three races in record times that still stand. Secretariat’s picture appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in the same week, a first for a horse.
Most know “Big Red” was bred by her late, beloved owner, Penny Chenery, the “First Lady of Racing,” who took over financially troubled Meadow Stable at her father’s passing.
What few know—it was not mentioned in the 2010 Disney film Secretariat—is that it was Meadow’s 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge whose winnings literally bought the cash-strapped farm…in a good way…for Chenery.
But, yes, racing can be cruel to the horses, the “athletes.”
The most ardent fans of the sport still can be brought to tears when reminded of the loss of the great undefeated (10-0-DNF) filly Ruffian.
Tall and near-black, she shattered her foreleg on the backstretch at Belmont during the ill-advised “Battle of the Sexes” match race against Kentucky Derby Champion Foolish Pleasure July 6, 1975.
Ruffian’s tragic fate was sealed by her instinct and heart when she continued to try running through the gruesome injury, later when she began kicking while awakening from anesthesia after hours-long surgery, shattering the fragile attempt to save her life.
Leading by a head in her final race at the time of a single misstep, she is buried under the flagpole in the Belmont infield, head pointed toward the finish line, in what has become sacred ground for both racing fans and horse lovers.
But Ruffian’s loss on the racetrack has gifted other injured horses of all breeds and vocations. The knowledge gained from the after-effects of equine anesthesia resulted in the creation of large pools of water into which a horse can be placed following serious leg surgery to create harmless resistance to potential fatal thrashing as the injured horse awakens.
They are even called “Ruffian Pools.”
Ruffian is but one famous example. Other racehorse greats that met similarly tragic ends have too gone on to inspire meaningful and lasting change in the racing industry and beyond.
Friends of Ferdinand
In 1986, Ferdinand won the Kentucky Derby. He went on to capture the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic and was named that year’s Eclipse Award Horse of the Year.
A son of the great Nijinsky, Ferdinand was a grandson of North American foundational Thoroughbred sire Northern Dancer. He entered stud in 1989 with high hopes given his bloodlines and stellar racing career. But he was not successful as a sire and was sold to a breeding farm in Japan in 1994.
Lost over time, investigative work by Bloodhorse magazine reporter Barbara Bayer in 2002 tracked Ferdinand’s life to his likely end in a Japanese slaughterhouse. There, he became pet food or table steaks for human consumption.
The destruction of Ferdinand sparked outrage in the equine industry and among racing fans and non-fans alike. That outrage was exacerbated by the knowledge Ferdinand was a gentle horse, easily haltered and fond of people.
The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and the New York Racing Association (NYRA) together launched the Ferdinand Fee in 2005, a $2 owner’s entry fee for each starter in every race. Money raised by the fund is used to promote legislation banning the slaughter of horses in the U.S. and the export for slaughter to other countries.
Legislation banning those practices has been stuck in the U.S. Congress for years. But a bill to do just that has been reintroduced and has gained a hearing. Hope for its eventual passage have inched ahead on the heels of the House passage of The Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act (H.R. 1754) and introduction of a companion bill in the Senate (S. 4547).
The non-profit Friends of Ferdinand was created in 2005 in Indiana. With over 200 “graduates,” its mission is to maintain retired racehorses rather than selling them abroad, while transitioning them to second careers.
Moved by Ferdinand’s tragic plight, retired Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen founded Old Friends in Georgetown, KY, near Lexington, in 2003. Beginning with one leased paddock and one horse on 236 acres, the world-renowned retirement sanctuary is now home to over 200 retired and rescued horses and has a second facility in Greenfield Center, NY.
Old Friends is a final home and a final resting place at the time of their natural passing to several multiple Grade One winners. Game On Dude and dual Triple Crown Classic winner Silver Charm are among them. One of its retirees, low-level claimer Popcorn Deelites, even was cast as one of the horses doubling for the star in the film Seabiscuit.
Retirees at Old Friends are supported by the generosity of some owners, and by contributions, one-time $100 named retiree sponsorships by the general public and over 200,000 visitors each year.
In a good-ending irony, breeding farms in Japan are among the most notable and frequent shippers of pensioned stallions to Old Friends.
Other farms have sprung up to help transition retired horses to second careers as Off-Track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs): New Vocations, Beyond the Roses Equine and (Champion jockey) Rosie Napravnik’s Off-Track Sporthorses are among the 74 approved and growing list of aftercare facilities for Thoroughbreds and other breeds.
The Legacy of Barbaro
Every generation of racing fans has its tragic hero: Ruffian for Baby Boomers, Ferdinand for Gen-Xers.
The current generation has Barbaro.
The son of Dynaformer was believed to finally be the horse to break the Triple Crown curse. He was trained by former U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team rider and show jumping Hall of Fame inductee Michael Matz.
Barbaro won the 2006 Kentucky Derby by seven lengths, the greatest margin since Citation in 1948, in what was described as a “sublime” performance.
Almost all observers assigned him the role of “next Triple Crown winner.”
Two weeks later on May 20 in the Preakness at Pimlico, fans awaited Barbaro’s triumph in the shorter second jewel of that elusive Triple Crown. What they got was tragedy.
One horse broke early from the gate, before the starting bell. It was Barbaro. He was examined by the track veterinarian, deemed unharmed and returned to his gate.
Breaking early from the gate is often a bad sign. I recall wishing he had been scratched as I watched. No one heard. The horses broke cleanly this time but, after little more than a hundred yards, Barbaro was pulled up by jockey Edgar Prado. The race continued, of course, with everyone virtually ignoring winning horse Bernardini.
Barbaro left in a horse ambulance for the nearby University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, a renowned equine facility in Kennett Square, PA.
He had broken three bones in his right hind fetlock (ankle). The injury was successfully repaired after marathon surgery by Dr. Dean Richardson.
Barbaro was awakened from anesthesia in a Ruffian Pool. He would never race again, but his chances for recovery, though it would be lengthy, were deemed quite good.
Owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson were determined to spare no expense in bringing their beloved Champion home to a healthy retirement at their Lael Stables in nearby West Grove, PA. Barbaro remained for a time in the Center’s Intensive Care Unit.
People around the world, racing fans and not, followed his recovery, inundating the wounded equine warrior with well-wishing prayers, phone calls, letters, e-mails and gifts.
Barbaro seemed on the way to a full recovery and fans were heartened by photos of him grazing outside Aug. 15 for the first time since his injury.
Then he developed laminitis in both front hooves.
Laminitis is a frustrating, extraordinarily painful inflammation of the soft-tissue laminae cushioning the hoof. It’s precise cause in sound horses is unknown. In cases involving injury, it’s been long-believed to be caused by the horse shifting weight from the injured leg to healthy legs.
Returned to New Bolton, Barbaro would undergo several orthopedic treatments over the next several months with varied prognoses. His injured fetlock bones had successfully fused, but the front-hoof laminitis, eased by one measure after another, would always return.
Following nine months of treatments, veterinarians concluded he could not cured. Sparing him of further suffering, and in consultation with the Jacksons, Barbaro was euthanized Jan. 29, 2007.
Three days later, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) established the Barbaro Memorial Fund for laminitis research. The Fund raised nearly $250,000 in only two months. Still active, the program funds numerous research studies and treatment protocols specifically related to laminitis and overseen by Penn and the Jockey Club.
Substantial progress has resulted from these studies, particularly in the areas of medications for pain management and the design of orthopedic devices used for cryotherapy, which has been proven to be very helpful.
Progress has also been made in understanding the basic science of the disease. Dr. Andrew van Eps was a resident at New Bolton in 2006 when Barbaro arrived. Now Associate Professor of Musculoskeletal Research at the Center, Dr. van Eps can enumerate a list of advances in the treatment of laminitis:
“After his case, there was an exponential increase in interest and funding in laminitis, and we owe a lot to Roy and Gretchen Jackson, his owners,” says van Eps. “Our progress is part of the Barbaro legacy.”
You don’t need to like racing to respect the good it can foster
I don’t expect I’ve shifted anyone’s mind from their dislike of racing.
But I do hope you when you read of any horse awakening from surgery with the aid of water immersion, you will think of Ruffian…
…that when legislation to end horse slaughter in the U.S. and export for slaughter is unanimously passed in a voice vote by the U.S. Congress and becomes Federal law, you will think of Ferdinand…
…that when your horse, one owned by a friend, one you simply love, can be cured of painful laminitis with the aid of advances in basic science, effective medications and less expensive orthopedic treatments, you will think of Barbaro.
Because I do hope you will be able to acknowledge that, in racing as in life, good can arise from bad, gain from loss, triumph from tragedy.
Share your suggestions for future horseracing and related topics to explore in the comments below.