An Air of Inevitability
Real Writing on Racing 💯
I left Saturday.
It happened again and I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to see ashen faces. I didn’t want to hear drivel from nitwits or idiocy from buffoons that were too drunk or stupid to understand that they should just shut up. So I walked out, retreated to my truck parked next to a friends barn on the Oklahoma training track side of Union Avenue, shellshocked and feeling empty.
The racetrack has been my safe place since I was a teenager plotting out the best way to make this sometimes magical game, held at all manners of iconic venues, a life choice. The track was where you could be around thousands of others yet still be left alone. We were compadres, friends and strangers alike, all committed to doping out the pari-mutuel puzzle that racing presents nine, ten or eleven times a day. It didn’t matter if it was a Wednesday at Belmont or a Friday at Freehold or Sunday at Saratoga…they all felt comfortable for a young kid yearning to be involved in a decidedly adult world.
At 4:25 Saturday afternoon…I just wanted out of that place I love…just wanted to get away…to flee.
Every race conjures up some anxious, uneasy moments as athletic competition is prone to do, the plot as of yet unrevealed, the outcome unknown. In a football or baseball or basketball game, that tension is broken after the kickoff or first pitch or jump ball takes place. You settle back into your seat and prepare for a couple hours of the potential drama and twists and turns that sporting events provide.
Not so thoroughbred racing.
There is that same tension but it doesn’t subside when the starter springs the latch on the gate, unleashing 1000 pound wrecking balls to carom around an oval at speeds that reach close to 40 mph. No sir, if anything it builds in your chest as the field turns for home, the early leaders desperately holding off the oncoming late closers in a scene that we’ve all witnessed thousands of times before.
Sometimes they hold on. Sometimes they fade. Sometimes they fall.
I have lived anything but a sheltered life and surely I have seen more rough things than the average person has experienced. Yet breakdowns are just soul crushing as there is no warning, you can’t see them coming, there is no bracing for impending doom…it completely blindsides you.
Most viewers are just unfortunate bystanders that happened to witness or tune into the scene of a wreck. For the others…the trauma of realization slaps you in the face, that the worst thing that can happened to your horse has actually occurred, the nightmare is real. It never leaves on either account, just likely lingers longer when that empty stall keeps reminding you.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I left the house mid-morning Sunday, but I knew where I was going to go. Perhaps the question that I am asked the most since retiring from training horses outside of “are you ever gonna make a comeback?” is “do you miss it?”. I do miss the horses but also the strange, comforting fellowship that curmudgeonly backside folks feel, especially when tragedy strikes. After 9/11 and during the pandemic, when the rest of the world was reeling, we woke early up for work and went about the business of taking care of our horses like we always did. Sunday morning that’s where I headed as I tried to figure out how I was going to approach racing on the day after.
It only took a few minutes on the ground on the backside before I was reminded that there is nothing quite like getting recruited to scoop up a large basket of wet, dirty (and heavy) horse laundry to snap you out of the doldrums. Breakfast at Shirley’s and a frank conversation about all manner of topics with a close friend raised my spirits somewhat. There really wasn’t a question of where I was going to spend the afternoon after I dropped that friend and the smelly laundry off.
Slim is a kid that I met at the harness track when we were teenagers, so long ago that it seems he has always been my friend. He and his longtime girlfriend were in town this week, coming back home from Florida on their annual trip north and hosting a little get together in the backyard area of the track. I hadn’t even opened the PP’s for the card and outside of knowing it was NY bred day, had no clue who was even running. After I wandered through the sea of picnic tables, thinking that they seemed more empty than would be normal on a perfect weather Sunday, I finally located my people. Slim and I got caught up on the latest from our aging crew of degenerates, some, like Rico and “the Chisler”, whom I had run into over the last few weeks during my travels around the Spa. So many old stories were told and retold, they were a never ending reminder of why we fell in love with this stupid game and the people that follow it in the first place. We laughed and ate sandwiches and looked at printed out DRF past performances and complained about a certain jockey we both never seemed to be on the right page with. Fired on a couple of races and had such a good time that we just laughed and shook our collective heads when cashing on an exacta that came back a short price at $8.70 with a $6.20 second choice winner over an 8-1 fourth choice. “Just typical horseracing bs…but at least we had the number” was the refrain, which normally would be cause for consternation but nobody wanted to dwell on petty details. Who knew that an old wooden picnic table and a trip down memory lane, handicapping the races on the fly with lifetime friends, just like we did in the old days…would be such a welcome tonic, at least for one pretty late summer afternoon?
The guys had an opportunity to go up to the roof and watch Frank Miramahdi call a race and I told them they’d have a great time but I was gonna go to the paddock see a friend saddling one in the 9th. With that we said our goodbyes till next time, went our separate ways and I was headed back to the real world of the present, walking into the saddling enclosure.
The doom and gloom had receded from my mind though the weight of the day before still seemed to cloud the proceedings. The remainder of the raceday went along like most others though it seemed eerily quiet as the crowd thinned. The late summer sun sat noticeably lower in the sky, giving off that Fall vibe as the shadows get longer and the days get shorter and the end of this cursed meet closer. My mood was assisted by being alive on a few token action wagers, giving me a rooting interest for the few races left. I walked over to the rail just past the starting gate to watch the Albany stakes, something I rarely do. It’s difficult to express why but I wanted to feel the horses run by me, not just observe them on a TV screen. I admit being apprehensive about standing there the second time they came past as Manny Franco was easing the runaway winner, Drake’s Passage under the finishline. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the two high profile fatalities that have turned this typically illustrious meet into a bumbling shell of itself, is they occurred after the heat of the battle, when foes had been vanquished, their races were effectively over.
Walking out of the track on Sunday felt much different than it had the previous afternoon though I can’t say it was optimistic or even positive. I turned and looked at the grandstand as I stood in the middle of Union Avenue waiting for traffic to hold up so that a scrum of us could cross. The emotion that hit me was melancholy, like when an old song triggers some faded memory from the past. I can’t even count how many times I’d made that same journey before but man something inside me couldn’t shake how this felt so much like walking out of Arlington or Pompano for the last time. We all knew the end was coming for those two special places yet the finality was jarring nonetheless. No Saratoga isn’t closing anytime soon but racing is in trouble and the great game that once was, I don’t think it’s ever coming back.
The residue of Ruffian still lingered during the decade after her demise when I was growing up as a horseracing crazed kid in upstate New York. It was said that the great filly raced herself to death, that she was too fast for her own good and that match races, pitting two horses to square off in the middle of the ring until one gave up, were inherently dangerous. The 1990 Breeder Cup Distaff wasn’t a match race but it might as well have been when Go For Wand was fatally stricken in deep stretch while dueling with Bayakoa (Arg), right past the former gravesite of Ruffian at Belmont Park, not too far from where I was standing that day. Yet these last two really bad ones (not discounting the tragedy of Nobel(Ire) on Saturday but a great deal of the 48000 or so on track or watching on TV weren’t even aware of his demise) weren’t match races and they didn’t happen in the heat of battle. No this was a new chapter in horror and it made you question long held axioms that had always rung true.
Speed is blamed but speed is everything in a race. Early speed. Late speed. Speed. People claim that “breeders are too focused on speed” but it’s one of those theories whose vagueness renders it a simple rhetorical musing that can be neither proven nor refuted or more importantly, corrected. The track surfaces usually take a reputational beating whenever high profile fatalities occur and again there is usually little tangible proof on either side to assign blame or proclaim innocence. Drugs are almost always blamed as a cause for so many issues in racing and breeding these days and one more time, it’s hard to claim any real evidence exists to support that notion. That last one is especially dubious considering that medication reform has dramatically reduced the use of legal drugs close to racing, even decidedly non-PED’s as shown by HISA’s growing list of trainers cited for violations that have absolutely nothing to do with enhancing performance or increasing a horses ability to run faster.
I don’t have any confidence that racing’s jumbled mess of dreadful authority and weak leadership has much clue as to what to do about virtually any issue facing our great but rapidly deteriorating game. The almost instantaneous calls for synthetic tracks from the usual corners once again misses the point that bandaids don’t stick for long. That is what synthetic tracks are, bandaids. Period. Disagree all you’d like but the cold hard FACTS as stated by Dr Tim Parkin in the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation study is that 99.847% horses that race or train return to their stalls safely. Since 2009 the incidents of racing fatalities has dropped from 2 per 1000 starts to 1.25 per 1000…yet ask just about anyone and they will claim authoritatively that the opposite is true. If that degree of reduction has not been lauded or even noted…what makes you believe an even slighter reduction is going to satisfy anyone if the wrong horse, at the wrong time goes wrong? Eight horses perished during races this summer at Saratoga, yet the surface that claimed the majority of those isn’t the one that people are itching to replace. It’s truly 21st century racing mentality in a nutshell. The ‘higher moral authority quick fix’ never seems to actually fix anything but it makes people feel good because they ‘did something’. Well at least till the next crisis crops up…
Racing has painted itself into a corner and the damn shame of it is that much of the hard work that has gone into making the game safer has been totally lost. It’s never enough just as advances in modern medicine that can’t cure disease permanently don’t quite feel like they have done enough, especially if you are the one suffering. If you care even an iota about thoroughbred racing or horses or people or small towns or farms or so much of what is connected to this game…you are almost assuredly suffering too. Human suffering can be broken down into three categories: physical, psychical and spiritual. All three are in play here and the huge number of different manners that that people cope with grief is as varied as there are unique snowflakes in a blizzard. Some write letters to the editor with an idea or two that they believe will make a difference. Many retreat with their own thoughts and let them ruminate before sharing with others, if they ever chose to do so. Some will walk away from the game and a portion of those might actually not come back. I’m not here to tell anyone how they should feel and I’m sure not going to offer some pie-in-the-sky fixes. I have been trying to get people in authority to listen for about two decades on how to remedy far more solvable issues than this one and sadly it rarely resonates. Recent quotes from racing executives and commissioners show very clearly how out of touch many remain on simple issues like optics or respect for the customer.
I’m not walking away mostly because I’m too old and too set in my ways to find something else that could fill the tremendous amount of time and energy that I spend on racing related endeavors. I’m strangely more at peace with the direction that racing is headed now than I was before this disastrous meet began. Frankly it’s more resignation than relief, it’s difficult to find anyone that is upbeat about this game that desperately needs an heavy dose of optimism to play at any level. I do feel bad for the younger generation as they won’t get to see racing at its finest and with each passing year it seems to slip further. The older generation…well at least we have memories that can be conjured up when times are bad and relive those glorious days of the past. I don’t have any other words of wisdom beyond what has already been written or spoken a million times before but as a long suffering fan of the New York Knicks, I know all too well what it feels like to just play out the remaining games of another lost season. For so many of us, that is how racing feels these days…just playing out the string till it’s all over…and it has never felt as close to the end as it does now.