I used to love horse racing when I was a little kid. The horses were so beautiful, and besides, I discovered I had a knack for picking winners. Not that there was ever any money involved. I made my “bets” by reading the sports page and writing down my selections.
My secret formula: I picked the ones whose names appealed to me. I hit the jackpot with Silky Sullivan, which came from way, way behind to win the Santa Anita Derby. I backed him because one of my favorite teachers was Mr. Sullivan, my geography teacher.
I fell in love with Secretariat the first time I saw his picture in Sports Illustrated. They say Jack Nicklaus burst into tears watching him winning the Belmont Stakes on TV by a whopping 31½ lengths because it was the only time he ever beheld perfection. But my all-time favorite was Alydar, a beautiful chestnut colt that had three memorable duels with Affirmed in the 1978 Triple Crown races. He lost all three by a nose, but that only made me love him more.
But now I’m older, and horse racing doesn’t look so glamorous anymore. On Nov. 2 a 15-to-1 longshot named Mongolian Groom was euthanized after breaking his left hind leg in the $6 million Breeders Cup Classic at Santa Anita. He was the 37th horse to die at the park since last December.
Closer to home, a 3-year-old filly named Blazing Amanda shattered her left front leg at Golden Gate Fields in Albany last December, piercing the skin, tearing tendons and ligaments and destroying her fetlock joint. She was put down immediately.
She was one of 18 horses that died at Golden Gate Fields last winter. Belmont averages about 40 deaths per year. And Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, has an even higher death rate than Santa Anita, according to the Jockey Club.
Horses’ bodies aren’t made for this. Their skeletal systems don’t fully mature until they’re six. But the big bucks are in racing 3-year-olds, when their bones are still developing. And if they’re not running fast enough, they’re given drugs to make them go faster. Horse racing apologists love to talk about how much the horses love running, but how much can they enjoy it if they have to be whipped to go faster? Would you whip your dog?
Gov. Newsom is talking about giving the State Racing Board more authority to supervise the “sport,” but the problem is fundamentally unsolvable. As with the circus, rodeos and bullfighting, whenever there’s money to be made off animals it always ends badly for the animals.
Take Alydar. After he retired from racing he still made lots of dough for his owners at stud. But when that income finally dried up, and there was no more to be made off him, his owner killed him for the insurance money.
Professor George Pratt of MIT, who testified as an expert witness in the ensuing court case, said someone tied one end of a rope to Alydar’s leg and the other end to a truck. The truck took off, pulling his leg from underneath him until it snapped. The Texas Monthly called his death “a sweeping saga of greed, fraud and almost unimaginable cruelty.”
Mark Twain was right: “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”
Martin Snapp can be reached at [email protected].