The Outside Rail

I was in a Starbucks, sipping a too-hot, venti Earl Grey and recovering from a Saturday morning spin class. That’s what we do on Saturdays. Nolan swims, Sam and I spin, go to Starbucks, get him a hot chocolate on the way out and head back to the YMCA in time for the end of swim practice.

There’s usually some time to kill and I looked at Twitter. Damn, I missed Many Clouds and Thistlecrack. Wow, Many Clouds beat him. How cool is that? One for the old guard. Like Landon Donovan getting one past Zack Steffen on the pitch. Thistlecrack’s coronation as England’s top chaser would have to wait a bit. Racing UK tweeted a video link of the stretch run. Whoa, what a finish. I love long-striding staying chasers.

My brother, who loves long-striding staying chasers more than I do, tweeted “As good as it gets – Many Clouds…” Eight minutes later, Sean tweeted “As bad as it gets – Rest in Peace Many Clouds.”

Ooof. What? No. Impossible. Like that, in one of those periodic reminders of the mortality of horses and heroes, Many Clouds was gone.

I thought of one thing, a moment at the 2012 Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville, Tenn. when Arcadius won the Grade 1 steeplechase only to collapse and die moments after having his picture taken in the winner’s circle. I saw that one, from about 10 yards away. I remember being impressed by him, proud of him, happy for him. I remember telling Brian Crowley, “Well done, jock” as he sat tall in the saddle afterward and Arcadius passed within touching distance of me. I almost patted him on the shoulder. I remember Crowley pointing to his horse, deflecting the praise.

Minutes later, I watched Arcadius half-step, half-lurch to his right and collapse. In a few minutes, he was gone. It was all so unfair. He died after all the dangerous stuff was over. He’d run 3 miles, jumped 18 fences, outrun his rivals, pulled up, walked back to the winner’s area, posed for the photos, been unsaddled, even sipped some water and felt the cooling sprays from a hose and misting fans.

I remember feeling empty and gutted about a horse I only sort of knew. It was that kind of moment.

Saturday, thinking about Many Clouds – a horse I didn’t know at all – the feeling returned. I thought of his jockey Leighton Aspell, trainer Oliver Sherwood, the groom, the veterinarians, the people back at the barn, the fans at old, stately, graceful, seen-it-all Cheltenham. Many Clouds never made it to the winner’s circle. He did cross the finish line and pull up to a walk – there are some great photos out there. He looks proud, regal, “chuffed” as the English say. Hard to believe he was gone a few steps later.

But racing is like that. Some horses don’t get to retire to green fields or take on second careers as foxhunters or lead ponies. Many do, but some don’t. That’s the way it is. The people cope, absorb the uppercuts, slip the jabs and duck the hooks. Old-timers used to tell me not to get too close to the horses. You never know when they might go, or why or from what potential malady. Arcadius died of an aneurysm in an artery near his heart. A similar injury claimed Many Clouds. In both cases, veterinarians said the ailments could not have been detected.

In theory, Arcadius had more races to run. So did Many Clouds. In reality, their mortality wouldn’t let them.

The anti-racing crowd will say that Arcadius, Many Clouds and others shouldn’t have died. But the only way to ensure that would be to ban racing and if you ban racing, Thoroughbred horses wouldn’t exist. They’re not suddenly going to live in the woods as wild animals, after all. There are no natural herds of Thoroughbreds. Racehorses are bred to run, and run they do. They’re at risk, the way any athletes or any beings are. Do they know it? I have no idea, though it’s something I ponder. I like to think they know, but don’t dwell on it. They know they’re mortal. They know there’s danger in what they do. But they’re in the moment, competing, striving, doing the best they can at whatever it is they’re doing.

That’s probably a sappy, romantic sentiment but without it horse racing might as well be car racing.

Nothing excuses humans from doing all they can to ensure the horses’ welfare, and that’s an important point to remember. Just because we don’t agree with anti-racing proponents doesn’t mean we can be callous or flippant with horses’ lives. We have to make the decisions the horses can’t – skip a race, call the vet, retire one start sooner, scan that tendon, X-ray that ankle, do the right thing.

Because the horses are counting on us.

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