At the races: Up close, now personal

The Preakness typically falls right around my birthday (early June), and I’ve been known to halt birthday parties to make everyone sit down and watch. Come on, it’s only a couple minutes. But having ridden horses for most of my life, and having even lived above a barn for a while, I feel a tie to horse racing that goes beyond a casual interest in the Kentucky Derby.

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Every time I go to the local racetrack (Timonium), I end up walking along the stable aisles. They make me think of a late-afternoon foreign bazaar, with the quiet buzz of an orderly, all-business atmosphere, punctuated by the quirks of various horses and their grooms. Today, a whistling hot walker for a lightly built orphan gelding. The whistle like a bird call, the horse nibbling the groom’s hands for striped candies.

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As much as I love the stables, the track is what draws gamblers and fair-goers. This is where the magic of whistling and peppermints, plasters and poultices, superstitions and veterinary science, comes to fruition: the race. This isn’t a highly-regarded track; these aren’t the cream of the crop. This high-speed chase is these horses’ (and jockeys’) job. The juxtaposition is incredible: backstage, the routine and rituals of grooms and stabled horses, versus the pounding surge of flesh on bones on mud that whips around the rail.

The few spectators out on a Wednesday afternoon late in the race day mill in near-silence as the horses break from the gate. Then. Near the finish line, the crowd chants. Each of us raising voice for personal favorites, the absurd names crash midair into one pulsing roar.

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But heart rates soar in shock, too.

For the third time in under ten days, a horse has to be put down on the track. In this instance, the horse finished the race, and then we saw the jockey leaping clear of the falling horse as both her front legs cracked below her, bringing her to her knees as though someone had swiped through her joints with a sharp blade. [Note: the above picture isn’t from one of these incidents, but shows a horse dropping out of a race early due to heat exhaustion; the rider with an orange vest is track staff.]

Many of the races were maiden runs; the horses were new to the game. Whether or not it was her absolute first time, it was impossible for me to watch the scene without questioning the larger industry at work. One of the state vets sitting near us said that the jockey probably pulled her up too quickly on a banked part of the track. But if that’s all it takes to completely disable, destroy a horse–after running only once–why are we doing this, again?

As with anything else, there are positives and negatives to Thoroughbred racing. The industry is rough on practically everyone involved. It cultivates gambling, and in turn gives many of the employed participants uncertain, unstable incomes because these incomes are based on race purses. Jockeys starve themselves as part of their job. Horses are raced before their bones are fully developed, when they are still incredibly vulnerable.

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There are comparisons to be made between the careers of too-young but too-glorious powerful animals and those of (human) stars of various professional sports. Competing with the negatives of the industry are a few positives. The horses are gorgeous to watch. It is an industry, so it does provide jobs–a surprising number. Beyond horse owners and jockeys, there are numerous grooms and attendants, racetrack stewards, trainers, agents, and a whole host of people working on the farm end to bring horses into the world and onto the track.

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In Baltimore County, a lot of land stays out of development due to wealthy horse owners, not necessarily wealthy from the horse industry, but using their wealth to support big animals grazing rather than McMansions gracing pastures. The industry is not particularly “green,” though.

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It’s hard to watch an animal bred and raised for the track have to be euthanized right there in the dirt. Later on, I can begin to think of it as “one out of three horses in ten days of racing” in a very cool, statistical way, but in the moment it is gut-wrenching.

The few hours I spent at the track were not enough to become any kind of expert in the industry. I learned a few things thanks to sitting near the state vets. I learned more from talking to some of the grooms after the races were over.

Most of all: I felt things. There is a reason environmental groups latch onto dying polar bears and endangered wolf cubs. Like the dying bears, the dying horses left an impression. The running horses did, too, though. The distortion of being so near something so viscerally compelling can be profound. Pounding hooves can stamp out the knowledge of unfairness and frequent cruelty.

Still, the chain link fence was the only barrier between me and the forty-mile-an-hour horses. Watching them run, I was infected with the drama of the scene. In minutes, I grew to care about these animals and the people building their lives around them. That level of sympathy is impossible without exposure, contact.

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So while an outside perspective may be balanced and faithful to the facts of a situation, the insider’s addition of empathy and real investment is, I believe, equally important.

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1 comment
  1. Years ago I was a veterinary asst at the local track. There were days when trainers would say to the vet: ‘Make him good to go, I don’t care what it takes to win, I have bills to pay and horses to feed if I’m going to stay in business.’ So part of what needs to happen at the race track is making sure that the big money is for older horses. Then the young ones will be brought along in order to be sound and ready for the big money that will keep the bills paid instead of sacrificed to pay off debt..
    Much worse is the agri-business model that makes its real money in horse racing through speculation on stallion fees, mare and foal care, and then prepping the youngsters. They push for purses and prices to peak with three year-olds. After that, it is a down hill path for the horse,as they are considered a disposable product that is no longer profitable and needs to make way for the next crop of foals. Banning breeders, owners and trainers that send their horses to slaughter will help reduce abuse because when slaughter is not an option, it is financially unfeasible to injure and discard horses. Then owners and trainers will handle their animals so as to keep them sound.
    Money talks, we just have to make sure it is saying what we want it to!

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