Monday, May 7, 2012

Mixed Feelings

By Terri Rocovich

Like millions of people on Saturday, I watched every minute of the Kentucky Derby coverage. Although I must admit I watched on Saturday evening on my DVR because Saturday for me is a day filled with riding, teaching lessons and Pony Club. The other advantage to not watching it live is that I could skip forward or delete it if anything bad happened. Hence my mixed feelings about having Derby, and Triple Crown fever.

I was what was known as a “racetrack brat” my entire childhood. My father’s avocation and passion for owning and breeding race horses was part of me as well and I eagerly tagged along to the racetrack whenever I could. At one point I dreamed of being a jockey until a growth spurt in high school made that impossible. None the less, I loved nearly everything about the racetrack. The early mornings, the routine, the horses (of course), the promise of each new foal, the excitement of each workout or race; all of it consumed many weekend mornings and most school vacations. While most families document the passing years through posed family portraits, ours was documented through posed winning circle photos.

When the horses were racing at local tracks, nearly every Friday and Saturday my entire family would spend our afternoons or evenings at the races. We would eat at the Turf Club or hang out in our owner’s box watching the races and our horses run. We would be elated when they won and would hopefully look to the next one when they did not. My sisters loved the social side of our racetrack life, but going back track, the management and care of the horses and the breeding and foaling; that was my Dad’s and my thing. It was a passion that we shared until his passing in 1992 and sadly after that we could not afford to keep our racing interests active. But oh the wonderful memories I have.

I also have some sad memories associated with the racing world of trainers and owners with no respect for the horses and who would do anything to win; and of gambling spectators who failed to recognize that these were giving, feeling animals who simply loved to run. On one particularly sad occasion we had a horse racing, named Corkie Woollen, who was the favorite in a high graded stakes race. Corkie bowed a tendon and broke down in the race and people in the stands actually booed as the horse ambulance passed the grandstand driving him back to the barn. Even though Corkie’s injuries were career ending he lived out his days as a beloved pet on our farm, far from the greedy, uncaring gamblers or ignorant booing spectators.

It also seems that racing over the past decade has changed and not all for the better. Although part of me is still a fan, I am having a hard time remaining loyal because of the epidemic of catastrophic injuries plaguing the sport as well as the cruel injustices paid to these magnificent creatures after their careers are over. Several years ago I privately boycotted the sport when the news hit that Ferdinand, an amazing stallion who had won the Belmont Stakes had been sent to the killers after he was no longer useful to his Japanese owners as a breeding stallion. But still I am drawn back when the big races come around. Exactly why, I am not sure. Perhaps I am a delusional romantic who knows how much these horses love to run or perhaps because it keeps me close to memories of my bond with my father. I am not sure.

I was relieved on Saturday that the Derby went off cleanly and without incident. I loved the background stories of Union Rags and Michael Matz’s quest for a derby after the tragic loss of Barbaro, and the story of Bob Baffert surviving a heart attack just 6 weeks prior and racing the colt, Bodemeister, named for his son. And the story of the winner, I’ll Have Another, named by the owner for the love of his wife’s chocolate chip cookies. All of it is better than fiction and the makings of a great novel. But as hundreds of other races go on every week that never reach a TV screen, at what cost to the horses does all of this add up too. Is it all worth it and is it right? I, for one, am not sure. How about you? What are your thoughts?

It was a thrilling race and as always the horses did not disappoint and I do plan to watch the Preakness, but it will be with mixed feelings.


Alison said...

I, too, have mixed feelings like you Terri, and you explained it well. I love to watch the sheer beauty of horses running, but my heart is always pounding with worry. But accidents happen off the race track as well. Our neighbor's horse broke his leg racing across his pasture, and the worst one I saw was during a hunt race. As to the abuses that go on--we know from past posts and comments that horrible things are happening to horses everywhere. Humans can be greedy, cruel and stupid whether it's on the racetrack or in someone's back yard.

Dreaming said...

I only wish they waited until the horses were older to start them and race them. I hate to see all of that potential ruined by early pounding on young bones.

Dom said...

Sounds like we have a lot of the same feelings on racing. I grew up working at the standardbred track and have many fond memories. I certainly learned more there than many people do in their entire lives as riders. Not all the memories are happy, however, and I'm not naive enough to think that all racehorses are treated as well as the ones I was blessed to work with. I am a racing fan and I do think most racehorses live a life above and beyond what many other horses experience... they are well fed and regularly seen by vet. They get regular exercise and daily grooming. I think racing needs to be better enforced with the welfare of the horses in mind and there are a lot of things I would change if I could. I watch the Derby and other big races with a mixture of non-stalgia, excitement, and worry.

Terri Rocovich said...

Well said Alison. Humans are often not the best example of humanity.

And Dreaming I could not agree with you more. I have said for years that making the Triple Crown races for 4 year olds rather than 3 year olds would go a long way to improve the quality of life of these horses. In order to get babies ready to race late in their 2 year old year, we would break them as long yearlings. Something I would never do today. Now, I never break a baby before 3 and never ask them to jump even the smallest of cross rails until they are at least 4. They just need more time to develop physically and mentally time to just be a horse.

Terri Rocovich said...

Dom, It does sound like you and I have had mirrored experiences. My Dad owned Standardsbreds as well as thoroughbreds so we flip flopped between meets. I know that all of our race horse were treated like the precious commodities they were and received a level of care and kindness greater than many children in this country. Sadly though, as you know, it is often the lower priced, lower valued, claimers and allowance horses in low budget training operatios that receive sub standard care and are considered disposal. Racing may be headed for regulation by a federal body which may be a good thing,(although I am sure that many of the oldtimers don't think so)especially when it comes to the regulation of the use of drugs like Winstrol and Lasix. Racing is in my blood and too much a part of my childhood for me not to remain intertested; I just hope it evolves for the better.

Laura Crum said...

Terri--I have roughly the same thoughts regarding racing as you do, though I was not raised in the business. But my sister-in-law and her husband train TB racehorses for a living, and I have thus had a lot of interaction with that world. Its a very mixed bag, just as you say. I think whenever people are trying to make a living from horses (in whatever sport) the temptation to treat horses as commodities rather than individuals with feelings, is much greater than when the horses are kept as pets and for pleasure.

Anonymous said...

I'm not anti-racing, but I'm sure against some of the detrimental "traditional" stuff they do. That aside, the high point of the Derby telecast was the bit about Lava Man's second career as I'll Have Another's pony.

lmel said...

I'd have to agree with most of you--they race too hard too young and it's always so tragic to see one break down. I think the last live race I watched was Ruffian's and haven't since. Since we don't have TV, we didn't watch the Derby live, but I was glad to see it was safe for all. Ironically, Take Charge Indy was injured in the race, and his jockey, Calvin Borel, felt something and slowed him down. I'll probably watch re-runs of the Preakness, but there's a growing community of people watching out for the welfare of OTTB's who are also keeping an eye on the racing scene. Maybe things will improve now.

Terri Rocovich said...

Laura you are so right, even y Dressage horse Uiver was an "investment" for others before I bought him and was known to be grouchy and difficult. People who knew him then say now that he "just needed a Mom."

And Anonymous I forgot to mention Lava Man. That story made me so happy to hear that for once a retired racing star who was not breeding stock got a second career on the track. Lava Man looked so happy and healthy and proud of his job.

Imel, I did see a horse pull up in the race but did not realize it was Calvin Borel and Take Charge Indy. I think think that most jockeys take great care to try to feel when anything is wrong and pull up. I hope that Indy is ok. In California we too have a growing number of group that rehab and find homes for retired race horses. They are common to see in the eventing world when they have now had significant prior injuries and several of my Pony Club kids ride older retired TBs who are incredibly kind and patient schoolmasters. Here's hoping that trend continues.

Unknown said...

It's funny, I realized this year that I had no clue who was running. As a teen and a young adult I would faithfully watch every race season (well, the races espn aired)and I'd actually know all the different horses stats, etc. Like you, I love the back stories of each horse. But as time has gone on I've lost touch with the whole thing. I didn't watch it this year as I was at a soccer game for my daughter all day.

whitehorsepilgrim said...

And then here in Britain we have the Grand National that seems to kill horses every year.....and next to nothing changes. Probably a jockey needs to die, then Becher's Brook would be lowered. A worthwhile sacrifice, perhaps, one human for many horses?

Out of interest, is the midfield at the Kentucky Derby still as Hunter S Thompson described it? Just curious. (As someone put it, what he described is just like the English horse scene minus the gypsies.)