Tag Archives: Horse Racing

Justify

Justify belmont-time-nbcsportsA big chestnut colt won the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. Five weeks ago, Justify won the Kentucky Derby. Three weeks ago, he won the Preakness. So he won the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred horse racing. It’s the second Triple Crown in three years, also second Triple Crown in forty years.

The jockey of another big chestnut colt was there watching Justify baffert-greets-ron-turcotte-2018 belmont stakes-nbcsportsdo it. Ron Turcotte could see the blue and white pole at the side of the track. It is 31 lengths from the finish line, marking the distance by which he and Secretariat won the 1973 Belmont, and the Triple Crown. No horse ever has matched that margin (76 metres) or Secretariat’s track record time.

Secretariat-pole-2018-Belmont-nbcsports
Frontrunners passing Secretariat pole 2018 Belmont Stakes

But Justify won the extraordinarily long race, at 1 1/2 miles, wire to wire. He was first out of the gate, and he kept his lead. For what felt like a long, long time, all the other horses were keeping up with him, just back a bit. Keeping up but not increasing their speed. Still, I was terrified. Someone was going to go into overdrive somewhere in that last half- or quarter-mile. “Pull him back, Mike, he’s got to save something for the stretch.”

Justify 1st, Gronkowski last to 2nd

gronkowski-last-2018-nbcMike Smith knows more about riding horses than I do. Justify did have something left. He pulled ahead a bit right near the end, finishing 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Gronkowski. That order of finish was a total surprise. Gronkowski was a long shot who wasn’t even near the pack for much of the race. And then he flew past horses to the front, almost. If you’d bet that unlikely combination, you’d have made some real money.2018-belmont-official-results-nbcsports

Justify is the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown in its 99 year history. His name and silks join theirs in the small field at Belmont Park honouring the winners. The silks of red with yellow stars justify 2018-triple-crown-plaque-nbcbelong to the China Horse Club, co-owners of Justify. In the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he wore the colours of WinStar Farms, the other owners in the partnership.

With luck, we’ll see Justify run again this year. Maybe the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August and the Breeders’ Cup in November at Churchill Downs. In 2015 American Pharoah won the Breeders’ Cup but finished behind Keen Ice in the Travers.

Justify_2018_Belmont_Stakes-Mike-Lizzi-wikicommonsjpgJustify is the son of Scat Daddy and Stage Magic. He has a lot of Northern Dancer in him, through both parents. 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew is his mother’s great-great-grandsire. A  Man_o_War_winning_Belmont-1920-wikipedia chestnut big redgeneration back from there on his dad’s side, there’s Big Red, Secretariat. Another few generations back and you’ll see the original Big Red, the big chestnut champion Man o’ War.

The Story of Seabiscuit

the story of seabiscuit stable decisions madeThe Story of Seabiscuit was released in 1949, only two years after the great racehorse died. It is the story of his life – sort of. His son Sea Sovereign portrays him.  Shirley Temple co-stars. The former child star was a young woman by then, and The Story of Seabiscuit was the second to last movie she ever made.

Seabiscuit ahead of War Admiral, match race at Pimlico Nov. 1938
Seabiscuit ahead of War Admiral, match race at Pimlico Nov. 1938

The real Seabiscuit is also in the movie. It includes archival footage of two of his races. The Santa Anita Handicap of 1938, a photo finish that Seabiscuit lost to Stagehand. Also the famous 1938 match race that he won against that year’s Triple Crown winner War Admiral. The race footage is the very best reason to watch the movie. Well, aside from also seeing his son Sea Sovereign, it’s the only reason.

Fiddling with the real story of Seabiscuit

While the movie portrays Seabiscuit’s career fairly accurately, it takes a lot of licence with the people around him. Owner Charles Howard and jockey George Woolf are portrayed in the movie. But fictional characters take the place of his trainer, Tom Smith, and regular jockey, Red Pollard.

His trainer in the movie, the man who recognizes his potential, is Shawn O’Hara, played by Barry Fitzgerald. O’Hara arrives in the United States from Ireland accompanied by his niece Margaret, shirley temple and lon mccallisterplayed by Shirley Temple. Seabiscuit’s jockey is called Ted Knowles, played by Lon McCallister. He falls in love with Margaret but there is conflict. It’s quite painful to watch.

Very painful to watch is derogatory stereotyping of African-American and Chinese characters – indeed Irish too. It starts very early in the movie and can put you right off watching any more. Also hard to watch is a discussion between nurse Margaret and jockey Ted about jobs for men and women. So be warned: pretty much every insulting portrayal of anyone is in here.

fictional racing programme
Racing form mixes real and fictional information

But the race footage! When the picture goes from Technicolor to black and white, you’re about to see the real races. Then you see the real tracks with the real horses and the actual crowds. Interwoven with the historical footage are shots of the actors to move the story along. Still, it’s spine-tingling to see the real horses in action. And, of course, to watch Sea Sovereign up close throughout the movie.

This movie makes you ask yourself questions about the nature of headline seabiscuit romps homestorytelling. Why was Seabiscuit’s well-known and real-life rags to riches story fictionalized in some ways and not others? Did some of the real people refuse to allow the movie to use their names? What did movie viewers think of this bastardization of a story many of them knew? It had all happened only a decade earlier.

Sea Sovereign as Seabiscuit in winner's circle Santa Anita 1940
Sea Sovereign as Seabiscuit in winner’s circle Santa Anita 1940

Pegasus World Cup

This Saturday, January 27, is the 2nd annual Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in Florida. The richest horse race in the world, it costs one million dollars to enter. The total purse is $16 million, up from $12 million last year. That’s the million each from the owners of the twelve horses running, plus $4 million from the Stronach Group which owns the track.Gulfstream_Sunshine_Millions_2006-Aht820-wikipedia

It is a Grade 1 race, with a distance of 9 furlongs or 1 1/8 miles. That’s one furlong shorter than the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic. It’s open to 4 year olds and up. So horses from the previous year’s Triple Crown races are eligible. With January 1st being the official birthday of Thoroughbreds, those 3-year-olds have turned four. For many of them, it’s a final kick at the racing can before they take up stud duty.

Arrogate 1st Pegasus winner

arrogate after 2017 pegasus world cup winIn 2017 Arrogate won in a track record time, ridden by Mike Smith (Watch race on NBC). Named American Champion Three-Year-Old Male in 2016, Arrogate won the 2016 Travers Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic. In the Classic, he beat favourite California Chrome, winner of 2014’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness and Horse of the Year in both 2014 and 2016.

Gulfstream_Park_Clubhouse_at_Hallandale_Fla. 1930s postcardGulfstream opened in Hallandale Beach, Florida in 1939. The Florida Derby began there in 1952. The Canadian Turf Handicap started in 1967 in honour of the many Canadians who winter or live in Florida.

One of those “snowbirds” was Sam Russo. His wife was my mother’s best friend from childhood. They lived near the track, and Sam worked in the betting windows during their winters there. It gave him a good excuse to go to the races, he said. He loved Gulfstream, and I loved his stories about it. Sam passed away in January 2017.View_of_first_turn_of_track_with_crowds_in_stands_at_Gulfstream postcard

In this Saturday’s race, 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Gun Runner is entered, along with other top finishers in the Classic. It will air on NBC and TSN at 4:30 ET. It will be streamed live on NBCSports.com and on the NBC Sports app as well.

Hanover Horses

Waco Hanover and Donnie MacAdams photo Barbara LivingstonA Facebook share – Waco Hanover celebrates his 40th birthday in 2017. He’s a Standardbred pacer, living in Vermont.

From his name, I knew he was of Hanover Shoe Farms. I’ve read Donald P. Evans’ Hanover: The greatest name in harness racing. It tells the story of a Pennsylvania racing and breeding stable that the Hanover Shoe Company owners started at the turn of the 20th century.

About ten years ago, after reading the book, I read online about Ralph Hanover who won the US pacing Triple Crown in 1983. He was the only Canadian-owned horse to do so. I learned that Ralph Ralph Hanover racing photo Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Famehad lived at Grand Royal Farms near Calton, Ontario. It is a magnificent property, one you know has seen days of glory. It was past those days when I knew it, but it was still a working horse farm.

So Ralph Hanover and Grand Royal, what were their stories?

The story of Grand Royal was easy to find. It had been a large Standardbred stable in southwestern Ontario. Then it went to Thoroughbred racing. Then it changed hands several times and its racing days were over.

mare and foal Grand Royal 1980s photo Elgin County Archives
Standardbred mare and foal, Grand Royal Farms, Calton ON, late 1980s

Finding out about Ralph Hanover proved more difficult. I googled and asked anyone I knew in the horse business. He went to Kentucky to stand at stud. Then he’d gone to Prince Edward Island, maybe. Alive? Nobody knew.

Reading about Waco Hanover now, I wonder how closely related he was to Ralph. My go-to horse pedigree site tells me Waco Hanover, born 1977, is the son of Tar Heel and Wanda Hanover. Tar Heel was son of Billy Direct and Leta Long. Wow! Billy Direct was the horse who matched Dan Patch’s record 1:55 mile in 1938.

Tar Heel was Ralph Hanover’s maternal grandsire. Ralph was born in 1980, sired by Meadow Skipper out of Ravina Hanover. So Ralph’s mother and Waco are half-siblings, making Waco Ralph’s uncle.

Ralph Hanover Waco Hanover pedigree by Dorothy Stewart
Ralph and Waco Hanover pedigree chart (click for larger view)

Then I google Ralph. Right at the top are articles about his death in October 2008 at the age of 28. He lived in Dutton, West Elgin, Ontario. In 2008 I lived in St. Thomas, a half hour drive from Dutton.

West Elgin Horse Farms

In July 2008, we went on a tour of West Elgin horse farms. One was a harness racing stable. I talked to the owner, but did not ask about Ralph Hanover. If I had, he likely would have told me that Ralph lived a few concession roads over. Ralph lived on the Mac Lilley farm.

One of the owners of Grand Royal Farms in its harness racing heyday was Doug Lilley. Googling hasn’t given me the connection between Mac and Doug, but the Mac Lilley Farms website says it’s a three-generation operation.

Ralph Hanover and Ron Waples horseracinghalloffame.com/1986/01/01
Ralph Hanover and Ron Waples, Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame 1986 inductees

So the lesson from this? Google, drive around, ask – and keep asking and driving. One good chat at the Western Fair race track probably would have told me where Ralph Hanover was. And keep googling. I might not have found out about Ralph until he died, since that’s what most of the results were about, but at least I’d have known eight years earlier.

Finding Ralph, too late, has made me think about the famous horses meeting their fans at the Hall of Champions in the Kentucky Horse Park (see my Cigar). And Dan Patch’s towns, Oxford, Indiana and Savage, Minnesota, making sure that visitors know they’re entering hallowed horse racing ground (see my Dan Patch).

Ralph Hanover was among the elite of racehorse champions. Dutton deserves to be proud of being his final hometown. I only wish I’d known he was there, so close by.

Dan Patch

Dan Patch was a harness racing horse, a pacer. He was crazy good, they said. 110 years ago, he was the best pacer ever seen. He was a Harness racing Dan Patch Breeder_and_sportsman_mag_1911_wikicommonshuge celebrity in the US, the first multi-million dollar sports superstar.

His story is told in Charles Leerhsen’s 2010 book Crazy Good. You will enjoy it even if you know nothing about harness racing. It’s a story of triumph over adversity, of middle America at the dawn of the automobile age, and of the hucksterism that Americans do so well.

Harness Racing Lineage

Dan Patch was born in Oxford, Indiana in 1896 to Zelica, a mare obscure in Standardbred breeding history. His sire, Joe Patchen, was well known for both his speed and his bad temper.

Crazy Good: The true story of Dan Patch - Amazon link
Click for Amazon link

At birth, Dan Patch’s prospects seemed zero. His left rear leg was misshapen. His owner Dan Messner was advised to put him down. But he didn’t. For the history of harness racing, and for Dan Patch, that was a very wise decision. Dan Patch learned to walk, then run.

Dan was a natural. He loved to race and he loved audiences. As his star rose, other parties became interested in him. With a new owner, he went to the big time. That’s when the hucksterism started. Not by Dan Patch, who simply continued to run the very best he could, but by Marion W. Savage, his new owner. At Savage’s International Stock Food Company farm near Minneapolis, Dan Patch lived out the rest of his days. When he wasn’t travelling the country in his own rail car.

T-Eaton-Co- photo Dan_Patch_wikicommonsDan Patch never lost a race. Horse owners became unwilling to enter their horses against him. So Savage promoted exhibition races with Dan running only against the clock. Dan set a record in September 1906 at the Minnesota State Fair with a mile in 1:55. That time was not officially recognized because a windshield was used. Dan Patch’s official mile record was 1:55:¼ set in Lexington KY in 1905. His unofficial record was not matched until 1938 when Billy Direct paced a mile in 1:55. It wasn’t beaten until 1960.

Dan Patch Two Step (piano sheet music)

Dan Patch coffee can from ctpost.com
from ctpost.com March 22 2012

Savage was an odd man, very successful at selling himself and products. However much he may or may not have known about horses, he knew a lot about marketing. And market Dan Patch, he did. Dan’s image and name were on livestock feed, tobacco, a railway and everything in between. He even gets a mention in The Music Man.

For horse people, Dan Patch didn’t need a front man. His talent spoke for itself. But Savage’s marketing of Dan and racing made both better known to a public much larger than harness racing fans.

Dan Patch died July 11, 1916. Marion W. Savage died one day later. By that time, harness racing had ceased being a major national sport.Dan-Patch-Line-MN-Bachman-farm workers load train car-wikicommons

If, like me, you’d like to do a pilgrimage to the homes of Dan Patch, check Dan Patch Historical Society in Savage MN for places and events. Also look for “Dan Patch Days” in Oxford IN.

I’ll Have Another

Barbaro-findagrave-17738583-J-Griffith
Barbaro 2003-2007

This was first posted on my St. Thomas Dog Blog, May 10, 2012. This Saturday, May 7th, 2016, it’s Derby Day again. It feels different this year – it’s the first anniversary of the beginning of American Pharoah’s successful run for the Triple Crown. It’s also the 10th anniversary of Barbaro’s Kentucky Derby win. Sadly, he was injured in the Preakness and he died Jan. 29th 2007. 

coffee mug from Kentucky Derby MuseumThe 1st Saturday in May, this is the mug I pour my first cup of coffee into.  Last Saturday, the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, I’ll Have Another came from the middle of the pack and passed the frontrunner. At 15-1 odds and in the 19th position, he wasn’t considered a serious contender.

His jockey, Mario Gutierrez, raced at Hastings Raceway in Vancouver, or as the announcer put it, “the small-time circuit up in Canada.”  It was Gutierrez’ first Derby ride.  The owner of I’ll Have Another, J. Paul Reddam, is originally from Windsor, Ont.  As a university student, he got interested in racing by hanging around Windsor Raceway.  Two racing lives honoured in the winner’s circle of the most I'll Have Another at finish line 2012 Kentucky Derbyprestigious race in North America, both nurtured on Canadian tracks.

Tracks that, at least in Ontario, face closure.  Premier McGuinty’s government decided that the long-standing profit-sharing agreement between tracks and the OLG would not be renewed.  Until now, OLG and the track shared the profits, with OLG getting the lion’s share.  Still, the 10% that the tracks get is crucial to their economic survival.  Slot machines and rooms that house them cost far less to maintain than do barns, tracks and horses.

Another side of tracks: history and tourism

All racetracks, including Churchill Downs, rely on slot machines and other forms of gambling for income.  When we toured Churchill Downs, our guide said the only day of the year on which the track 1907 Postcard of bookies at Woodbine Racetrack Torontoactually makes money from racing is Derby Day.

But the pride, prestige and history of Churchill Downs is in the racetrack and barns.  It is a tourism draw, with tours, gift shops and a museum.  Restaurants, motels and stores in Louisville also benefit from the dollars that come with these tourists who come to Horse Mecca and buy a commemorative mug.  Do non-gamblers make a special trip to tour a casino, other than in Las Vegas?

A racetrack is a huge operation, employing many in track and horse maintenance.  Also the breeders and trainers who spend years refining bloodlines and preparing juveniles for the track.  The stars are the horses and they are expensive to maintain.

Amazon link for Northern Dancer Legend and Legacy
Click for Amazon

Meanwhile in Ontario, racehorses are being sent for slaughter.  If the tracks don’t have the slot machines, they likely will close. There will be nowhere to race horses so breeders are getting out of the business.  That means getting rid of living horses.  It is said that newborn foals are being killed before they stand up – that way insurance will cover their “loss”.  Many of those thoroughbred foals and their mothers and fathers have the blood of the great Canadian Northern Dancer in their veins.

Thoroughbred and harness racing are part of our national history.  If Harness racing at Western Fair track London Ontario ca 1934profit sharing with slot machines keeps tracks alive, that also keeps alive our horses and our presence in the sport of kings.  McGuinty’s tinkering with what worked just fine for long before he became premier is now costing the lives of horses and livelihoods of horse people.

Breeders’ Cup

Saturday was Hallowe’en. A big day. This October 31st was a big day for another reason. The Breeders’ Cup Classic horse race and the chance to see something that’s never happened before. It happened.

breeders' cup classic pharoah-and-victorWire to wire and breaking the track record time, American Pharoah won the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Therefore, he won the grand slam, the four most prestigious Thoroughbred races in North America. He is the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown and the first who had the chance to add a fourth jewel. (Watch it here)

The Breeders’ Cup was started in 1984 by American horse breeders as a showcase for the sport and the bloodstock. Each year, on dirt and turf tracks, the best of the best compete. The Classic is for 3 year old and older horses. It’s a big end to the race meet and the season.

five-length-leadUnlike the Triple Crown races, the Breeders’ Cup moves from track to track each year. This year, for the first time, it was held at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. In light of the history it made, that was especially nice. Keeneland is an old and prestigious track right in the middle of the blue grass and horse farm country.

Breeders cup celebration wave

After the Breeders’ Cup Classic

The day after the Breeders’ Cup, American Pharoah was trailered a few kilometres down the road to his new home, Ashford Stud at Coolmore Farms. It would have been a difficult day for the Zayats, saying goodbye to him.

He’s still their horse but they sold the breeding rights to Coolmore. It’s likely his stud fee will be about $200,000. That will go up or down, depending on what happens when his babies start racing. The fee for the services of Pioneerof the Nile, his dad, jumped way up to $120,000 after American Pharaoh won the Triple Crown. It was evidence of good genes being passed on. So now we wait to see if American Pharoah passes them to his offspring.

classic championI wish American Pharaoh a long and happy life. His name will be a distinguished one in the record books forever. He’ll have a special place in our hearts. A Triple Crown after 37 long years, when it seemed all but impossible. Then the cherry on top – the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But most of all for his heart and personality, for making it look so easy.

 

Ron and Secretariat

Last weekend, my dog and I went to Grand Falls/Grand-Sault in secretariat-and-ron-photo-d-stewartnorthern New Brunswick to see a statue unveiled. It is Ron Turcotte and Secretariat crossing the finish line at the Belmont Stakes in 1973 and thereby winning the Triple Crown.

As you cross the falls on the Ron Turcotte Bridge heading to the town’s centre, the statue is the first thing you see in the middle of the beautiful Broadway Boulevard. New Brunswick artist Yves Thériault made it, and it is magnificent.

In an article I read, M. Thériault said he wanted to convey the sense of turcotte-statue photo dorothy stewartthe race itself, that moment of victory. How can you do that in bronze, I wondered. He did it. The long narrow dirt-filled base is the track, with M. Turcotte’s career wins and awards engraved on the sides. Beside Secretariat, the finish line tower shows the time (2:24). Crouched over his neck, Ron Turcotte looks back to unseen horses, way way back.

The monument was under wraps of course, and the wrap was Secretariat’s blue and white checkerboard. The statue was unveiled secretariat-unveiling-photo-d-stewartby little kids dressed in The Meadow’s silks, complete with boots and helmets. During the removal of the cover, the actual race call played over loudspeakers. That was a truly inspired moment of theatre.

After unveiling the statue

Ron Turcotte, his wife Gaétane, children and grandchildren and his brothers and sisters were all there. Horse racing dignitaries were there, fans from all over Canada and the US and hometown people ron-and-leo-photo-d-stewartcelebrating their own local hero. A lovely message of congratulations from Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery was read out.

It was a party, with cake and plush-toy Secretariats. Everyone wanted to talk with M. Turcotte and have their picture taken with him. As he headed to the tent from the statue, he kindly stopped to allow me to take a photo of him with my dog.

In the tent, he signed autographs on small cards and large posters. He turcotte-signs-3-triple-crown-printsigned the glass of large framed prints. For me, he signed a photograph of another dog of ours standing beside the Secretariat statue at the Kentucky Horse Park. That made the day complete for me.

I stopped at the Falls on my way out of town. I couldn’t quite see the statue from there. Probably in winter, when there are no leaves on the trees, you’ll be able to. I didn’t stop at the town’s museum across the road, but I wish I had. M. Turcotte’s riding boots and goggles are on display.

motel-leo-photo-d-stewartLeo and I enjoyed our stay at the Motel Leo. Lovely people and a fine room. Merci, thank you.

See my Secretariat movie for the picture I had autographed and thoughts on the movie.

Also see my Turcotte, the movie for more on the excellent 2013 NFB film Secretariat’s Jockey about Ron Turcotte’s life and horse racing career.

American Pharoah

american pharoah in belmontSaturday, I saw something I’ve never seen before: the winning of the American Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. I hadn’t expected it to happen, but I hoped. American Pharoah made it look easy. It’s not.

He’s the 12th horse to win it in almost a century. The last time the triangular statue was handed to an owner was 1978. Thirteen times triple-crown-trophy-2015in the 37 years since, it’s sat in a secure storeroom at Belmont, waiting to be given to a potential winner, only to be put in storage again. The trio of 1970s winners were represented Saturday: Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery, Seattle Slew’s trainer William H. Turner Jr., and Affirmed’s jockey Steve Cauthen.

five-and-a-half-lengthsAmerican Pharoah is bred and owned by Zayat Stables. He will stand at stud at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud Farm in Kentucky. It will cost a lot to get one of his babies. Breeders are likely poring over his pedigree and those of their mares, trying to choose one with performance and conformation in her background that, with luck, will enhance and balance his.

unofficial-winnerBreed the best to the best, and hope for the best, is the rule of thumb. Getting the “superhorse” is the dream, and they’re one in a million – literally. Stats on NBC’s Belmont broadcast showed that, since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, 1.4 million Thoroughbred foals have been born.

American Pharoah Pedigree

American Pharoah was born February 2, 2012 to Pioneerof the Nile and Littleprincessemma. Look through his pedigree and you will see well-known names. On his sire’s side are Mr. Prospector, Northern Dancer and Bold Ruler, sire of Secretariat. On his dam’s side are Northern Dancer, Secretariat and Raise a Native.

Amer-Pharoah-pedigreeThe great Man o’ War is found in eleven of American Pharoah’s 16 great-great grandparents. Man o’ War could have, should have, been a member of the Triple Crown club. He won the Preakness and Belmont in 1920, but did not run in the Kentucky Derby. At the time those races were simply three of many, so whether to run or not had no great significance.

silks-belmont-parkBeing only five weeks apart with differing distances that test a horse’s ability, the three stakes races were first called the Triple Crown by a journalist in 1923. But they didn’t become that officially until 1930. That year, Gallant Fox won all three. Sir Barton in 1919 was the only other horse to have done so. Therefore, in 1947, ten years after his death, Sir Barton was included as the first Triple Crown winner. I’m sure that, had he run the Derby, Man o’ War would be in that select group.

 

Track Royalty

Entrance to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky DerbyThis coming Saturday, May 2nd, is the Run for the Roses, the first leg of the Triple Crown.  The 141st running of the Kentucky Derby. The young royals of mainly North American horses will be there. Both connections and horses dream of winning it and going on to win the other two jewels of American Thoroughbred racing.

No horse has done it since Affirmed in 1978. It’s the longest gap ever in Triple Crown history.  I didn’t see Secretariat’s spectacular runs in 1973, but I certainly knew about them. With three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s, I thought it was something that would happen like clockwork every few years. Little did I know.

looking up at twin spires from seating areaChurchill Downs, even without horses there, is magical.  In the tunnel and trackside, you almost see the horses and jockeys. Inside the viewing salons, you feel the money and the excitement. In the betting lounges, the tension and hope for the big win and desperation over the big loss surrounds you.

What’s wrong

There’s a lot wrong with the horse racing industry, just as there is with any sport business that involves animals. Too many horses are bred in order to find that elusive ‘superhorse’. What happens to the foals that don’t make it to the track, and those that do Thoroughbred great Ferdinand racingmake it, but aren’t good enough for the big time?  What happens to those that are good enough but, like any athlete, get past their prime?

The great Ferdinand, 1986 Kentucky Derby and 1987 Breeder’s Cup Classic winner and 1987 Eclipse Horse of the Year, was slaughtered in a Japanese meat-packing plant in 2002 after his career at stud was deemed over. He earned over $3.75 million.  His reward was to become steaks and dogfood.

What’s right

There’s also a lot right. Running faster than the wind is in the blood and bones of a Thoroughbred. Most racing people love horses. They ought to. It’s the horses who run the race and win the glory and the money. The jockey, trainer, groom and exercise rider help the horse, but they are support staff. A jockey can cause a horse to lose a race, but he can’t make a horse win. It’s the horse’s mind and heart that runs the race. And that’s all the people need to remember. Look after Cat at Barbaro memorial stone, Kentucky Horse Park 2007the horse and the horse will look after you. And remember, when that horse no longer wins the big purses, that it was his or her effort that got you where you are.

That’s where owners, owner syndicates, trainers and jockeys can go wrong. They think it’s them – their handling, their business decisions that are key. People who believe in their own centrality in horse racing should instead invest in NASCAR or motorcycle racing. The thrill of speed and winning is the same, and it is solely your care and handling that makes a car or motorcycle win or lose. It might be cherished by you, but it’s inanimate. It will not feel anything if you junk it at the end of its career. If you’ve done well in horse racing, thank the horses that did it for you by treating them right in retirement.

Thoroughbred Retirement

In 2005 NY racing groups began the Ferdinand Fee, a voluntary $2 per race charge with girl petting horse at Old Friends Equine Retirement Farm 2007proceeds going to Thoroughbred retirement farms. Old Friends Equine Retirement Farm near Lexington is the only one that takes stallions. Because of their often-difficult personalities, they can be hard to handle. Most rescue and retirement farms are not equipped for them. Mares and geldings stand a better chance than stallions of having a good post-race life. (Updated from my St. Thomas Dog Blog, May 5, 2011.)