You wonder how anyone can do it. How do people work with racehorses, closely? How do they care so much? How do they worry about every little detail – the feed, the bedding, the hay, the bandages, the riders, the tack, the dust, the coat, the hooves, the flies, the coughs, the saddle pads, the water, the electrolytes, the heart, the back, the tendons, the knees, the ankles, the airway, the mane, the tail, the eyes.
And how do they do all that, knowing that in some instances, at some point, it won’t matter?
You can care for a racehorse as much as you want. You can worry, fret, stress. You can poultice, pack, pick. You can feed, massage, manipulate. You can turn them out, keep them in, walk, jog and gallop them. You can race them on the flat. You can race them over jumps. You can turn them into broodmares or stallions. You can simply turn them out in a field and let them live.
But you can’t prevent them from getting hurt and dying. Not all of them.
Saratoga saw that clearly on Travers Day when 2-year-old colt Ludicrous broke his leg in the stretch. Saratoga saw it again Monday when 7-year-old gelding Makari fell at the last fence and broke his neck.
Like punches in the gut from Joe Frazier. Ooof. Ooof. The hard part is anyone in racing knows the punches will keep coming. You can’t save racehorses. You can’t protect them. Not completely. Write that down somewhere. Remember it. For the next time. Because there will be a next time.
It’s not callous and uncaring, it’s not an afterthought, it’s not a way to justify racing; it’s just a fact. Thoroughbred horses are as subject to the vagaries of life as you, me, your dog, your cat, the squirrel trying to cross the street. And racehorses are bred for the sport, that’s the only reason they’re here. They’re not running free through the high plains of Colorado or amid the tall pines of the Adirondacks.
The people who give a damn in racing realize all of that. And they work with horses anyway. They do it for the chance to be close to the animals, to help them find their talent, to make those lives matter and mean something.
Monday afternoon, a few hours after the Turf Writers, I walked to the barn area to catch up with race winner Demonstrative. He was in an end stall at the harness track, done up in four light gray standing bandages with poultice on his front legs. He was leaning out – way out – of the stall. When I walked up, he banged me with his head. Then somebody tossed me the bag of treats and Demonstrative ate two as fast as a Little Leaguer sucking down a post-game Fribble at Friendly’s. I laughed, rubbed his forehead and told him he’d done a good job.
Five minutes later, Demonstrative and Laird George were walking down a horse path toward a sand pile. The horse knew where it was and dragged his person there. Two, three paws and he was down – first the right side, then the left. He looked a bit like a dinosaur wallowing in the mud. This big, gangly, half-ton thing with four legs – who just ran 2 3/8 miles as fast as he could- rolling on his back. He stood, shook off a cloud of dust and dragged George around some more.
I couldn’t watch it and not think about Makari, some other sand pile, some other day, some other person, some other opportunity to roll. Three weeks earlier, he’d beaten Demonstrative a nose. Now he was gone.
The rolling had loosened a bandage and George tossed me the shank to hold the most valuable steeplechaser in North America. I held on, George reset the bandage, Demonstrative looked me in the eye. I could almost hear him say it would be OK.
And I guess it will be.