Posted on Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Every time I witness something like the breakdown of Eight Belles in the
Kentucky Derby, I tell myself I’ve watched my last horse race.
Particularly after the filly’s gallant stretch run—for a long moment it
appeared that she might actually catch Big Brown before the wire—the
sight of veterinary vans encircling the stricken animal to prevent
spectators from seeing her euthanized was unbearable. Unlike some, I
can’t criticize NBC's coverage because I couldn’t watch it. My wife was
crying like a child. Partly that’s because we’re horse people, a passion
we came to relatively recently, causing us to rearrange our lives. I’ve
come to feel that places that are no good for horses aren’t particularly
good for people. The most powerful surge of homesickness I’ve ever
experienced struck me one humid evening in New York City some years ago.
Walking up Fifth Avenue, I was surprised by the heavy, pungent odor of
horses, the lineup of carriage horses along Central Park South waiting
patiently to take tourists clip-clopping through the park. I wanted to
hail a cab to the airport on the spot.
Not that caring for a couple of middle-aged geldings gives me any
special insights into the so-called sport of kings. Well, maybe a few.
First, tragedies like Eight Belles’ death are an inherent part of horse
racing. They can’t be entirely prevented. Riding horses under any
circumstances can be dangerous. When he first became acquainted with my
quarter-horse Rusty, my farrier, an outspoken individualist like many
people you meet around barns, warned that he was too headstrong and
athletic for a middle-aged novice.
“You keep messin’ with that big sumbitch and he’s gonna hurt you” was
how Tom put it.
Problem was, I’d already bought him. Not long afterward, I’d saved Rusty
from a near-fatal colic attack on a 104-degree July day. It’s hard to
describe my emotions when he stopped while I was walking him out—he’d
been staggering, in a daze—to nibble on clover. He was going to live. He
drank something like eight half buckets of salty water at half-hour
intervals that night, roughly 150 pounds of lost fluid.
So 10 years later, I reminded Tom that while Rusty had scared me half to
death—stampeding with a deer herd toward a barbed-wire fence, for
example he’d never actually hurt me, apart from black eyes caused by low
“Yeah, well, you, me and him are all gettin’ old,” Tom allowed. “If he
kills you now, it won’t be on purpose.”
So yeah, there’s a streak of fatalism among horse people. When you climb
on an animal weighing between 1,000 and 1,300 pounds that can run 40 mph
in bursts with a mind and will of its own, bad things can happen. I know
a barrel racer who had a horse fall on her, step on her face and break
several ribs last year. She won another event a week later. That said,
horses aren’t anywhere near as life-threatening as, oh, the New Jersey
Second, people who imagine owners, trainers and jockeys cruel and
indifferent—a New York Times columnist equated the sport to
bullfighting—don’t know what they’re talking about. Horses get inside
you; they just do. Along with their speed, power and beauty—some of the
earliest prehistoric cave paintings are of horses—they have vivid
personalities, strong emotions and no reticence about showing them.
I once asked a racetrack trainer if it was possible that my silly horse
Lucky actually feared a kind of orange butterfly that made him freeze
“They’re not smart enough to lie,” the fellow said. “If he acts scared,
Of course, the real issue was whether Lucky trusted me. After he decided
he did, he ignored the butterflies.
Third, 20 horses on a track with four turns isn’t so much a race as a
stampede. Especially since more than half have no realistic chance of
winning and are there to showcase their owners’ ego and bankroll.
Fourth, running a filly with 19 strange stallions in front of 157,000
drunks is unacceptably risky. Wild horses live in herds controlled by
bullying stallions ready to throw down and fight savagely at the
slightest challenge. Under the veneer of her training, Eight Belles must
have been amped for flight, halfway expecting an equine riot and
determined—this is the nature of racehorses—to show those swaggering
punks her heels. She got all but one, didn’t she? It may have killed
her. Last, and to understand it’s necessary to read a knowledgeable
track writer like The Washington Post’s Andrew Beyer, thoroughbred race
horses are as much a product of human genetic manipulation as a
dachshund. In American racing, they’re breeding animals with too much
muscle and bones like teacups. Something’s got to change, and it could
require political intervention.
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.