Friday, June 6, 2014

Why I'm worried about that little horse running in the Belmont tomorrow

Photo courtesy of

You may have been so wrapped up in the Donald Sterling scandal or the NBA playoffs or the NHL playoffs or all of them combined that you haven't had a moment in recent weeks to read the remainder of the sports page. So let me update you quickly on something important that happened in horse racing. Last month, a little horse from California won the Kentucky Derby. Then he won the Preakness. The horse's name is California Chrome.

These are big races, and the reason this is important is that, in horse racing, if a horse wins the Derby, the Preakness and then Belmont Stakes, it's known as the Triple Crown, and winning the TC turns a horse into a rock star (in the horse world) overnight. Winning the Derby is like finally getting that long awaited invitation to Madison Square Garden to perform, if you're a real rock star. Winning the Triple Crown is like being invited to perform at the Garden plus having an album go platinum plus being asked to perform on the Grammys. So, if you don't follow horse racing, you should now have some idea how important winning the TC is. You should also know that no horse has been able to achieve this feat since 1978.

One reason, of course, is that the Belmont track, at a mile and a half, is longer than Churchill Downs (where the Derby is run) or Pimlico (where the Preakness is run). Another glaring reason is that after the first two races, many horses are simply too broken to win the Belmont.

Now, I don't want to go all PETA here (though the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals do have accurate and substantial information on their website about horse racing), and I certainly don't want to jinx our brave little stallion from California, but I have to confess that it has become difficult to get excited about watching horses try for the TC when we've seen such equine tragedy in recent years.

You may remember hearing of a horse called Barbaro, a truly valiant steed who won the Derby in 2006, then lost the Preakness—because he fractured three bones in his right hind leg, probably at the start of the race (but of course he galloped around the track with the rest of the herd as horses will do). When he pulled up at the finish, he was holding that hind leg high, barely able to stand. Emergency surgery was performed the next day, and for months his owners tried everything to fix him, to no avail. He was eventually euthanized.

Then there was that little filly I fell so in love with named Eight Belles. In 2008, she finished second to the now famous Big Brown (the last horse to win both the Derby and the Preakness) in the Kentucky Derby—and immediately after crossing the finish line, she collapsed. Both front legs had sustained fractures as she ran, and she was so broken they couldn't even remove her from the track. She was euthanized while all those ladies in their pretty Derby hats looked on in horror. I would have needed to immediately down four or five mint juleps had I been present that day. As it was, I was watching the race on television and dissolved in tears when I realized what had happened. She, too, was a valiant steed. But there was a lot of pressure on her jockey to get her across that finish line ahead of Big Brown, and her jockey had whipped her repeatedly down the stretch because she wasn't running at her usual speed—no doubt because her legs were breaking.

Why? Because horses with long, slender pasterns (that space between the fetlock or ankle and the hoof) win races, so in the last twenty years or so of racing, thoroughbred owners have followed bloodlines with that particular trait, breeding horses with thinner and thinner pasterns. It makes the horse more flexible as a runner, but also compromises the horse's leg strength, for obvious reasons.

And then there's the doping that goes on in the business of horse racing at a rate that would make Lance Armstrong look like a novice at bait and switch and concealment. Horses are given pain killers so that, if they are injured or just not feeling well, they'll still run hell bent for leather, as we say in the horsie world. Just as Eight Belles did. (I make no accusation in regard to whether she'd been given pain killers. I simply note that she ran her heart out despite her pain, as did Barbaro.)

Because of Eight Belles, I could not bring myself to watch another Derby, though I had watched the race every year since I was twelve or thirteen. But last month, having done some reading on California Chrome and his owners, I settled myself on the couch, took deep breaths and watched him win the Derby. (I did not see the Preakness as I could not arrange to be at home.)

This amazing little horse might win the Belmont Stakes tomorrow. If he does, he will be immediately retired from racing and made comfortable on a stud farm where he will live out his days trotting around in a large pasture (when he isn't busy getting it on with every pretty filly who can afford his stud fee). The perfect life, I'd say, for a stallion. That is, if his legs hold out. I'll be praying as I watch the race.  

1 comment:

  1. Some very good points, Kay. I think "rock star" actually underestimates it. With no Triple Crown winners since 1978 and only three since 1948, I think the term "demigod" might actually be more applicable.

    As for fillies, you are too young to remember Ruffian from 1975. She didn't compete in the triple crown series, but won race after race against colts. They set up a match race between Ruffian and top colt Foolish Pleasure, they they were running neck and neck in the backstretch when she broke down. I've never watched horse racing the same way since.