Posted by: starhorsepax | October 2, 2010

Racehorse Ramblings

So here it comes: another racehorse movie. In a way, it’s surprising they waited this long to do one on Secretariat.  Asking a friend whether she was going to see it she replied “racing is a cruel sport”. That got me to thinking. Is it?

Well, it sure can look that way a glance, when you see Barbaro break down, see jockey’s who keep slamming on the whip or consider all the horses who end up broken down young and sent to slaughter.

On the other hand, this is a people problem more than a sport problem. You also see human athletes break down, keep pushing themselves when they should stop and end up with permanent injury.

The double edged sword of being an athlete, being the best, is pushing past what anyone has done before.  And humans can be cruel to themselves to achieve it or even measure  up.  But the best of the best are also an inspiration to dream bigger. And what would we be without that?   True, they have a choice (or so we think.)

You can’t ignore the money issue either.  It costs to feed the horse, train the horse, enter the horse.  It becomes a balancing act, win enough to at least pay for his keep and not prevent the owner paying for their own and their families keep. I say this thinking of the ones we tend to cheer on: the underdogs, the people who are not blue blood thoroughbred owners born to the ‘Sport of Kings’ and high finances.   It’s the same issue you face at every level of existence: what can I afford? And what happens if I can’t afford it? What do you do with the racehorse who can’t pay for his keep, can’t perform due to injury and yet you can’t really afford to give away?

In some ways, the racehorse lot has improved.  We have plenty of people on the ‘animal protection’ bandwagon to roar in protest over mistreatment. We may not always agree on the exact lines where it begins and ends – witness those who believe carriages should be banned against those who think it’s good horses get to work.  Witness the whole horses to slaughter battle between those who think it should be illegal and those who think it’s a necessary but not preferable evil.  We have tv, youtube and internet blaring track breakdowns to the world.  You can hide the proverbial fire of abuse in the back stable but the smoke will surely be seen on the track.

Its a good thing at least that now, unlike in olden days the races are not galloped in several heats and forced to keep on going and going to determine the winner.  On the other hand, we still have a bunch of primary races for three year olds, some of whom may in actual physical age may only be two or so depending on when they were born. Given that a horse can live into his thirties, it seems  ridiculous to train and train so young, race for the triple crown (which hasn’t been won in decades) only to break down before their five.  Naturally, the thought seems to be that they will then retire to stud as most are stallions.  But then….there is Ferdinand.

Personally, I’ve made some reasonably good guesses as to top finishes in races, based just on how they walked and how much energy they had. I learned this in part from watching Alysheba and Ferdinand. Face it, you can count on strategies (you can’t read the jockey’s mind) or luck (only God knows) and previous perfomance only carries you so far.  Even the greatest horse has an off day.  Even the worst has one that’s on.  Sometimes, they meet the same day.  Admittedly, there was no pressure here, I was guessing for fun and pure love of the horse. I intentionally ignored pleas to the heart strings based on underdog stories and tried to ignore extreme dislike for the trainer whose horses kept breaking down.

But then I learned that Ferdinand of all horses was sold to slaughter! A Kentucky Derby winner!  Turned out he was impotent and his oversees buyer cast him aside like…like dog food!  Now I don’t know how much of my horror at the idea of eating horses is cultural and how much is just passionate love of the horse.  But I do know this was an extreme case of greed and ignorance.  I’ve no doubt, none at all, that someone would’ve surely matched the price of a slaughter buyer to bring even an impotent Ferdinand home.  He’d have been a tourist attraction, even John Henry and Cigar, both champions retired to comfort at the Kentucky horse park. I hope no American ever sells those particular overseas people a horse again, it would not surprise me if they weren’t blacklisted. But greed is a powerful foe.

Did they really not know someone would take the horse back? Was there culture and attitude to horses so utterly foreign from ours? Was it:

Only ignorance? only ignorance? how can you talk about only ignorance? don’t you know it is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness? and which does the most mischief heaven only knows.  ~John Manly,  in Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Speaking of John Henry and Cigar, those are two I consider  heroes. Not Derby or Triple Crown winners, but old campaigners who just kept going. Like any human athlete, they had their bumps and bad days. But they had owners and trainers who kept them going and rested when they needed it. They must have, or they’d not have been able to run for so long.  Horsemen and horsewoman who care  for the horse as a horse and not just a means of getting dollar signs or a trophy.  We need more of those, not more flash for the day in the Kentucky Derby  three year olds.  No matter how good a sire they are, the general public won’t likely remember them long. I know. I’m a horse lover, but I’m a general public horse lover not a ‘affiliated with the racehorse kind’.

We treat our horses in America much the way we treat ourselves. We struggle over what we can afford, skimp sometimes when we shouldn’t.  Urge the kid’s on too hard without a break…I enjoyed a whole summer before school started. Now some kid’s start school in the hottest month.  Some kid’s are pushed and pushed to get an athletic scholarship to get into college to the exclusion of all else.  Some are pushed in other areas; I recall a movie called “Searching for Bobby Fischer” on that very subject. The difference is no-one would dream of ‘putting the kid down’ let alone ‘selling to slaughter’ if he or she breaks.

Some of the more extreme animal rights groups probably figure ‘let horses be free’ is a solution. This runs into two problems. First, your average ‘born in the stable’ horse has no idea how to survive the wild. He’s been bred to run, or jump not survive. I’m not saying it wouldn’t figure it out or enjoy it. I’m just saying he’s not optimized.  That’s what mustangs are-optimized.  Catch them and sell them in the east and they run into trouble digesting the richer food.  And we apparently can’t leave them alone either- or the government can’t.

So, the problem isn’t really racing is a cruel sport. It’s more that humans run it, and we can be cruel to horses, ourselves and each other.  And that’s a problem that can only be fixed one decision at a time.  But I do think that horses themselves can teach us a lot; they can bring out the best in us. Barbaro’s fall was horror. But the people’s response was not: cards, gifts, well wishes-this is the best of humanity, brought out-as is often the case- in the worst moment.  We just need horses to keep reminding us what the best of ourselves looks like.   So…bring on Secretariat.  Let’s see what he has to say.

To me, horses are beautiful. Loving, inspiring majestic creatures. I draw them not just to earn money, I draw them because I must. Take away my sketchpad and pencil, and I would grab a crayon and draw on a napkin or cardboard box. As an artist they are the muse.  I see them run when I hear music play.

When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: He trots the air, the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.” Shakespeare

Thoroughbreds Run Free Art

Bred to Run


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