Since I grew up in the horse racing industry, everyone I’ve encountered recently wants to talk about Barbaro. My family was about tens of millions of dollars away from The Triple Crown races, but I’ve still felt my share of anxiety, fear, and sadness when a horse is injured. Luckily, as I check the news this evening, the latest reports on the injured Kentucky Derby winner continue to be encouraging.
Injuries are a sad reality of horse racing. The fact that a horse who so dominated the Kentucky Derby can face death with one wrong step provides an idea of just how risky this sport is. Entire careers and livelihoods are based upon the health of an animal. Even common illness can be catastrophic. For you and me, a stomach ache isn’t pleasant, but it generally isn’t life threatening. For a horse, a bout with colic can be a death sentence.
I will forever root against the University of Michigan basketball team for the simple reason that whenever they made it to the Final Four, we had a horse become deathly ill with colic. In 1989, when Rumeal Robinson and Glenn Rice led the Wolverines to the championship, we listened to the game on a radio in the barn as we walked a sick horse for hours in an attempt to keep his condition from deteriorating.
I was at an age where I was just beginning to have an understanding of money, work, career, and providing for a family. As a child, the “horsies” on our farm were part of the scenery, something to wave at as I leaned over the black-tar fence. These animals that populated our farm just seemed natural to me. It was the only life I had ever known and since my reading consisted of sword and sorcery novels, I thought everyone had a horse nearby. Gandalf had Shadowfax, didn’t he? Perseus had Pegasus. Brom Bones raced on Daredevil and Ichabod Crane rode Gunpowder. These entertainments shaped my childhood views and so horses were just always there for me. I didn’t think of them as any type of occupation.
But by the evening of that Michigan-Seton Hall game, I was old enough to understand the true implications of my father’s job. If something happened to that horse, maybe we couldn’t make that month’s payments on my extensive orthodontics. Maybe we’d have to cut back on school clothes, or movies, or sell something. As a junior in high school, I didn’t understand the full extent of our family finances but I knew that losing a horse would not be a good thing for the checkbook.
I was also at that crucial moment in a boy’s life when you begin to understand your father. There’s a point where you move beyond arguments about hair length, music volume, and fashion sense. You begin to realize the importance of work and vocation and what your old man stands for. I knew how devastated my father would be if this horse didn’t survive. It was a career setback, a financial loss, and a personal devastation of losing an animal that he dedicated his life to.
I was hypnotized by walking in circles, exhausted, complaining about my feet, and trying not to listen to the horse groan as Seton Hall’s Gerald Greene fouled Robinson with three seconds left in overtime. “Meal Time” stepped to the line for a one-and-one and sank both shots for a one point Michigan victory and I handed the reins to someone else. That particular horse survived. But plenty more didn’t.
But, the signs look good for Barbaro so maybe he’ll make it. Whether he ever stands stud or not isn’t the issue. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed for his life. If you’re interested in learning more about the horse business, there’s the ubiquitous Seabiscuit: An American Legend, although I actually prefer a number of other books. Kevin Conley’s Stud: Adventures in Breeding is an illuminating look at the business end of the sport. Track Conditions by Michael Klein and Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son by John Jeremiah Sullivan are great memoirs. And if you can find them, Tom Ainslie’s wagering books from the sixties are wonderful artifacts of a more innocent era.
By the way, that’s me, the short, shivering, buck-toothed nine-year-old in the winner’s photo.