Tag Archives: Kentucky

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, 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 Thoroughbred 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.)

Cigar 1990-2014

Champion racehorse Cigar 2007 at Kentucky Horse ParkThe news from the Kentucky Horse Park that Cigar died Tuesday Oct. 7 made me look through photos I have of him.

After retiring in 1999, he lived in the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park. I met him there in December 2007. He was in his stall, watching a stablehand clean it. But when he saw he had visitors, well, over he came. Then seeing my camera, he posed.  According to the woman looking after him, he loved putting on a show for the punters.  Outside in the paddock, he’d run and roll for the crowd standing along his fence.  Inside his stall, he’d do what he did with me, come right up and strike poses for as long as a camera clicked.

Cigar died during surgery to relieve his pain from osteoarthritis in his neck and spine. He was 24 years old. In his career, he earned nearly $10 million and 19 of his 33 starts. He tied the 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation’s record of 16 consecutive wins.

His maternal grandsire was the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. His paternal great-grandsire was the great Northern Dancer. Twice voted Horse of the Year and Champion Older Male and inducted racehorse Cigar with stall door open Dec. 2007into the National Museum of Racing and the Hall of Fame, he lived up to the standards of his predecessors.

He thrilled racing fans at the track and, in retirement, he thrilled many more by giving of himself so cheerfully.  You were a gentleman, Cigar, and you will be missed.

He is buried at the Memorial Walk of Champions near his barn and the Horse Park says there will be a public memorial service at a later date.