Definitely: No guarantees in racing

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This horse is definite for that race. That horse is definite for this race. So-and-so will run in some other race. And so it goes.

Horse people – trainers, breeders, assistants, grooms, exercise riders, hot walkers, van drivers and anyone else who ever snapped a shank on a halter – know nothing is definite when it comes to Thoroughbred racing. The horses don’t definitely go anywhere. Ever.

Got that?

Far too often, horses get pegged for future assignments – racing and otherwise – and then don’t fulfill them. Don’t blame the horses. Nature made them, not some factory or assembly line. No matter how hard humans try, we can’t apply absolutes to the horses. They win, they lose, they race, they stumble, they eat, they drink, they get sick, they grow weary, they get hurt, they prove that – in the end – nothing but the vagaries of fate, genetics, blood, muscles, biology is in control.

Draw up all the speed figures you want and a horse can inexplicably follow up a 100 with a 6 or a 6 with a 100. Otherwise, you couldn’t bet on them.

I spent two months following local (for me anyway) 3-year-olds Toby’s Corner and Animal Kingdom this spring. In miniature, they went through the extreme ranges of life in Thoroughbred racing. Toby’s Corner won the Wood Memorial in April, trained like an Olympian, ate, drank, slept like a Kentucky Derby candidate, then went to the sidelines with a still unexplained lameness in a hind leg. Animal Kingdom dominated the Spiral, worked at Churchill Downs like a demon and upset the Kentucky Derby. He lost the Preakness by a half-length after falling behind early. In the Belmont Stakes, he lost all chance a few strides from the gate and a few days later went on the shelf with a hock injury. This week, he had surgery at New Bolton Center. He’s out for the rest of the year, at least.

Along the way, both horses were confirmed as “definite” for something or other when in reality nobody knows what they’re definite for – other than gleefully eating a carrot when/if it’s handed to them.

Now imagine for a moment you worked with horses for a living. Would it make you nuts when someone said your horse was “definite” for something? Would you seethe inside, a little, when an expert assigned a number to your horse, a living, breathing example of everything numberless? You go to sleep every night and wake every day knowing you’ve been entrusted with an elite athlete. That’s the good part. He has delicate feet, tender ligaments and tendons and bones. She has a mind of her own, a future full of doubt, questions, concerns, worries, pitfalls. All you can do is your best. You’re a blacksmith, a veterinarian, a trainer, an exercise rider, a foreman, a jockey. You’ve done this your whole life. You’ve seen horses live, die, run, jump, eat, not eat, get sick, sweat, not sweat, sleep, fall, spook from imaginary gremlins. You’ve seen them walk with a limp one day, tear around the track like a McLaren the next. You’ve seen them work too fast. You’ve seen them work slower than a golf cart on its last drops of battery juice. You’ve seen them wheel around, buck off riders and sprint for the nearest gap. You’ve seen them freak at the sound of thunder, come unglued at the site of a bicycle. You’ve stood them in ice for hours. You’ve seem them get nervous over nothing, and tried everything – goats, chickens, medications, music, lights. None of them worked. Not definitely anyway.

So what’s the lesson? First, strike definitely from the vocabulary of Thoroughbred racing. Second, appreciate the wins, the success, the performances, the glimpses of greatness. How good are horses who don’t get hurt? How phenomenal were the legends? Imagine what it took for Seattle Slew to stay unbeaten through the Triple Crown. How good was John Henry when he came back year after year and competed at racing’s top tier?

In one of the conversations we had this spring, Graham Motion told me he tried to stay grounded by focusing on what his horses did, not what they didn’t do. Great advice for racing, for life.