“In betting on races, however, there are two elements that are never lacking: hope against hope and an incomplete recollection of the lessons of the past.” -E. V. Lucas, Visibility Good
Note: For a little perspective, see my post on the Belmont Stakes from a year ago, “Belmont 2008.” Original titles, I know.
I didn’t work the Preakness Stakes in 2006, but I watched it on television. The previous three years had seen highly promising horses win two of the three legs of the Triple Crown, and we watched Funny Cide, Afleet Alex, and Smarty Jones slip from the public’s favor the second they were nosed out of a sweep. In 2006, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro seemed to be getting as much hype as these three hopefuls combined. NBC devoted most of their pre-Preakness coverage to the horse, following him from the stable to the paddock to the post. I still remember that moment, a few furlongs into the race, when everyone realized that something had gone wrong. Barbaro twisted and stuttered—Edgar Prado was quickly and skillfully pulling him up—and he half limped, half sprinted to the side as the cameramen grudgingly tracked the rest of the race. Bernadini won easily, and everyone turned back to Barbaro, surrounded by trainers and doctors, looking so much smaller without his saddle as he gingerly raised the right hind leg on which he could no longer stand. I’ve watched it again recently, and it’s still heartbreaking. The bigger story is a compelling one—the long, costly battle to repair and rehabilitate Barbaro after an injury that is normally met with swift euthanasia, his eventual death and the resulting scrutiny into unsafe breeding and racing conditions—but that moment on the track remains one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.
Seven years ago, I started working in an industry whose facets were in varying stages of decline. Horses were growing bigger and running faster every year, but they were breaking down more often, and a single bad step increasingly meant an end to a racing career, or to a life. In grandstands across the country, turnout was plummeting, and on the other side of the windows, state and federal officials were quashing the corrupt practices that had become emblematic of pari-mutuel betting. Customers and fellow tellers were constantly telling me that things just weren’t the same these days; they could never seem to agree on exactly when things were better, but the glory days were, without a doubt, behind us. I worked over at Belmont a few weeks ago, on a sunny Memorial Day, and they put me up in the far end of the Clubhouse with just half a dozen other tellers. We were in a big, air-conditioned room with twenty or thirty rows of desks and chairs facing two walls of televisions tuned to every major track in the country. The crowd was decidedly older: my youngest customer that day was probably in his early sixties. The teller next to me had worked Belmont weekends for the past two decades, and he’d spent many Saturdays stuck in this forgotten corner of the track. “These people are here every single day,” he said, scanning the crowd grimly. “And I don’t know who’s going to fill these seats when they’re gone.”
I came back to Belmont two weekends later for the final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes. I was spared a sleepy afternoon upstairs when they assigned me a window out in the park, where people had arrived at eight in the morning to claim picnic tables, where shirts and shoes were apparently optional, and where $8 beers didn’t seem to slow anyone down. It was one of the more brutal major race days I can remember. Attendance was way, way down: nearly fifty percent fewer people than last year, when a hundred thousand showed up to see if Big Brown would be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. But I think the economy kept people out of the stands, where seats and boxes can cost hundreds, and pushed them into the park, where you can bring your own food and smuggle in your own liquor. My customers were rowdy novices and the tips were paltry, though one man, upon winning a few hundred, handed me a ten and shouted, “You! You’re worth the price of admission!”
Barbaro cast a dark shadow over the 2006 racing season, and last year saw Eight Belles break two legs moments after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby. She was euthanized right on the track minutes later. Peter J. Boyer wrote about her trainer, Larry Jones, in The New Yorker last month. Much of the article hovers in a weird space between an in-depth profile of Jones and an investigative report on the dangers of overmedicating and over-breeding thoroughbreds, but it never really goes far enough in either direction. There are powerful moments in the piece, though, like when Boyer describes the final moments of the Derby, when Eight Belles is put down before anyone consults Jones:
When he got next to his horse, and touched her, moving her legs, he could see that the decision made on the track had been the right one. Eight Belles had suffered compound fractures to both of her front ankles. “She had no chance,'” he says now. “As soon as I looked, and moved her legs just a little bit, there was no way you’re gonna save this horse. You’ve gotta have at least three legs to stand on, and she didn’t have ’em. She just didn’t have ’em.”
This year we haven’t seen such tragedies, with some trainers erring on the side of caution and keeping favorites out of big races rather than risking horses’ health for high profile wins. Last year, when PETA got vocal and Congress talked about stepping in, I was sure that by this year the racing world would be a very different one: highly regulated, continually criticized, and possibly nearing an actual end. But Congress never did get around to a serious probe, and rightly so—I’d much rather have them grill auto and banking executives than drug-loving horse trainers like Rick Dutrow. But states have spent the past year putting some regulations in place, banning steroids and some medications, and replacing natural surfaces with gentler artificial tracks.
But it seems to me that nothing the government does, short of extreme action, will really change the sport. The pressure won’t come from the fans, many of whom care more about trifecta payouts than they do about the long-term welfare of horses. Nor will it come from animal rights groups: some equate thoroughbred racing with dog and cock fighting, and their extreme rhetoric and lack of in-depth understanding only hurts their cause with racing professionals. Change must come from within. In my post about last year’s Belmont Stakes, I quoted Sid Gustafson, a novelist and horse veterinarian who contributes to The Rail, the New York Times’ Triple Crown blog. This year, in an article called “Horse Safety is Up to Us All,” he writes about the medications and techniques used to dull horses’ senses and push through injuries. He calls for the professional racing community to voluntarily end these practices, writing with characteristic gentleness. “…it is all of us who must contribute to make racing safer, and to improve the competitive ethic and our relationship with the horse. In time, horsemanship will once again by and large replace medication, and horse behavior will once again be appropriately considered.”
Things feel different this year. In our everyday lives, we’re more cautious, buying next to nothing, choosing essentials slowly and carefully, opting for products that are built to last. For years, horses have been bred based on the market, because a horse descended from champions can often make more as a sire than he could winning races. Today’s thoroughbreds are inbred and subsequently shakier for it: as Boyer points out in The New Yorker, every runner in the 2008 Kentucky Derby was related to a single horse—Native Dancer, who had notoriously bad ankles. I’m not prepared to draw any foolish metaphors about an inherently weak horse with a sterling pedigree and, say, any of the trickery that fueled the financial services industry until the fall of 2008, but I think there might be a parallel in there somewhere. Most people in the racing industry are united by one thing: a love of horses. Ten years ago, I couldn’t have cared less about them; now, I’m in tears watching a horse break down. Horses are not simply an investment, or a number to bet on. I imagine most people have always known this, but with the tragedies of recent years, they now seem to be acting on it. Between that and the economy, the racetrack feels like a very sober place these days. But if that’s what it takes to save the industry, then I’m all for it.