Last fall, I went for a ride with Divine Fortune. With Keri Brion aboard, he sauntered out of the barn, stepping with a leggy reach that said, “Hey let’s go train.” He was 11, coming off a rough fall at Belmont Park a month earlier, and it was the attitude that struck me.
He led the set. He carried his chestnut head high. He slapped his front feet out when we started to trot and reluctantly slowed to a walk when we turned left to walk down a lane toward the galloping field at trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s Pennsylvania farm. I was on a semi-retired racehorse, and mostly holding on, but I could feel Divine Fortune. He was happy to be there. Walking along, he put on a show, the Thoroughbred at its best.
We galloped up a steep hill in a field, mostly just something to do as his race was four days away and the serious training was finished. He started slowly, hammered his hind legs for power to get up the incline, then floated over the top. Slowing to a walk, he drew great breaths of air and stared far into the distance. He couldn’t have known I was there to write an article, couldn’t have known his seven-years-younger stablemate All The Way Jose needed a role model, couldn’t have known that he looked like a horse in a movie.
Walking back to the barn, Divine Fortune made Brion smile with a silly head-shaking, neck-snapping maneuver that still proves difficult to explain.
In October, I put it like this but it’s not quite right either: Part twitch, part habit and all “Hey look at me!” the 11-year-old cranks his head all the way to the left – while walking straight ahead – holds it for a beat, then zips it back in one, swift pull. Then he goes back to walking. Then he does it all again. And again. And again.
The point of my visit was to see if he still had anything left. He’d won an Eclipse Award (at 10) the year before, won a Grade 1 in May, but pulled up as the heavy favorite at Saratoga in July and fell like someone pushed him off a ledge at Belmont Park in September.
I left knowing that, yes, the old man still had it. Four days after my visit, Divine Fortune finished second in the Grade 1 Grand National. A month later, he won the Grade 1 Colonial Cup.
That’s the way Divine Fortune was – all in – and it cost him his life Thursday. Battling for the lead in the New York Turf Writers Cup, his fifth start in the race and his 43rd in a jump race, he fell at the last fence and broke his shoulder. It was one of those falls. You kind of knew. You didn’t want to know. But you did.
He was surely tired. He was definitely brave. Probably reckless too. But that’s how he did it. Divine Fortune didn’t chip in at the last fence, Divine Fortune went for it, flew at it, fired with whatever he had for Sheppard, Brion, owner Bill Pape, anyone else who ever appreciated a brave Thoroughbred.
Like that walk in October, he did it his way and nobody knows why.
I saw the fall and felt it, especially when he didn’t get up right away. In 2012, he fell at the same spot, scrambled to his feet and jumped a fence past the wire without a jockey just to show everyone he could do it. Thursday, he stayed down. Veterinarians, jockey Darren Nagle, Sheppard, Brion and others were there in seconds and Divine Fortune eventually stood up and walked on to the ambulance but the damage was done. He was euthanized because you can’t fix broken shoulders, not in horses.
When it happens, people want to know why or how. They wonder how jump racing can be so dangerous, but still exist. I struggle for an answer. It’s not that dangerous, it’s just magnified here, I say. Horses have been competing in jump races for 260-some years. There are people who think flat racing is too dangerous. They don’t watch it and don’t participate.
There are no easy answers.
I wrote a similar column after Makari died doing the same thing at the same spot in the same race last year. When falls happen, jump racing is bad. But I don’t think it’s cruel or barbaric. I think the horses like it, I know they like the life they get. I know it’s a delicate, fragile balance for the humans involved – just as it is for people responsible for flat horses. Divine Fortune could have been retired. He also could have died in one of those earlier falls. If you enter a horse in a race – any race – there’s a chance he or she might not come back.
I saw Brion, Sheppard’s assistant and Divine Fortune’s biggest fan, after the race. She had blood on her arms. Her face wasn’t really a color. She stood just outside the winner’s circle and leaned on a fencepost. She didn’t sob, not then, though she probably did and will. She just tried to speak for her horse.
“He does that, he tries so hard and then he doesn’t even let himself just fall. He tries to save himself and falls harder and worse,” she said. “It’s not fair. It’s not the way he was supposed to go out. But that’s what he loved to do.”
It still hurts.