Rose Parade

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Bad day at Pimlico

It's been years since I've paid much attention horse racing. As a horse-crazy kid thoroughbreds filled the void until I was fortunate enough to get a horse of my own, the wonderful Meadowlark. Once I had the real thing I lost interest in racing, but for a while there I was pretty damn knowledgeable. I knew the horses, trainers, jockeys and breeding and I was pretty damn good at picking winners. I was actually aware that today was the running of the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horseracing's Triple Crown, which hasn't been won since Affirmed did it in 1978. In fact, over the years only 11 horses have actually managed the feat. I heard the unfortunate results on the radio a couple hours ago. Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was favored to continue his march toward the elusive title but things soon went awry. First, he broke before the starter actually released the field, somehow busting out of the gate. I'm sure it happens but I can't remember ever actually seeing that. Barbaro's jockey, Edgar Prado, pulled him up quickly and he was reloaded. Had he finished the race and lost, that early break would have been the talk of the sports world. But the false start paled in comparison to what happened a few moments later. After a clean start along with the rest of the field, a few lengths out of the gate Barbaro took a bad step and fractured his right rear leg. In the last hour or so I've watched the replay a couple times on TV and countless times in my mind and it's all I can do to keep from crying. It's a heartbreaking sight: as Prado is pulling him up you can see Barbaro hopping, trying to keep off the injured leg. Even after he's stopped and the jockey is off you can feel the pain in the way he holds the leg up, see the pain on his face. Given the severity of his injury there's a good chance they won't be able to save him and probably the only reason they're even trying is that he's still extremely valuable as a stud. The whole thing gave me a horrible sense of deja vu, recalling what is probably the most infamous moment in the history of the sport: Ruffian breaking down in her 1975 match race with Foolish Pleasure. They tried and failed to save her too and as far as I know there hasn't been a sanctioned match race since. The fiasco that ensued when Ruffian awoke from surgery only added insult to her devastating injury. Ironically, an MOW about Ruffian is currently in production. It's scheduled to air on ABC and ESPN in June 2007, in conjunction with next year's Belmont Stakes. A couple years ago I went on a Ruffian/ebay spree, buying a commemorative plate, three old issues of Sports Illustrated (the week before, of and after the match race) and a DVD with a ton of Ruffian material, including an ESPN special from a few years back and that horrible final race and its aftermath. There's one particular shot of the injured filly, circling her jockey after he's stopped her and dismounted and is trying to keep her still, where you can see the injured foot loosely flopping around in distinctly unnatural directions. It's the stuff of nightmares. Seeing Barbaro favor his injured leg had me flashing back to that stomach-churning sight. One of the unfortunate but inherent problems with horse racing is that these horses are investments first and beloved pets a distant second. I'm not saying the owners don't care about the horses at all - I'm sure Barbaro's owners are devastated right now. But the fact is that privately owned riding horses don't break down the way racehorses do. What is a sadly common occurence in racing is an almost unheard of thing among horses used for pleasure and show, even among jumpers. Not to say they don't suffer lameness and injury, but in all the years I was active with horses I can't recall a single instance of one breaking down to the point of having to be put down. And there's a reason for that, a reason that makes all the difference in the world: an investment is expected to pay off, preferably sooner than later, even if said investment is still technically a child. Someone who rides for a hobby pretty much invests in a four-legged money pit. Even most show horses don't earn their keep. Horses are a rich person's hobby. That's the only reason I don't have one. But for the sake of discussion, if I buy a young horse - let's say a yearling - for my personal use, here are the general milestones for breaking, training and riding:
  • Prior to age 2-1/2: Groundwork under saddle. Get horse used to carrying saddle and going through his paces via verbal commands.
  • Age 2-1/2 to 3 (depending on physical maturity) : Start light riding. Get him used to briefly having weight on his back and then increase amount of time in saddle, easing horse up through his paces: walk, jog/trot, lope/canter, but not up to a full gallop.
  • Age 3 and over: Horse is now old enough for flatwork on a regular basis at all gaits. However, if horse is going to be used for jumping wait until...
  • Age 5: Start horse over fences, starting low, 1-1/2 to 2 feet. This is a gradual process, in the higher levels of show jumping many seven and eight year olds are considered green and have their most productive and competitive years ahead of them.

However, if this yearling is destined for the track, his training will progress along these lines:

  • Age 1-1/2: Training on track commences. Riders will be comparable in weight to jockeys.
  • Age 2: The racing career begins in the spring. Early races will be only 5 or 6 furlongs, increasing in lengths as the year progresses.
  • Age 3: The Triple Crown year. The Kentucky Derby (1-1/4 miles) , Preakness (1-3/16 miles) and Belmont (1-1/2 miles) are restricted to three year olds. Extremely valuable horses, such as major stakes winners are frequently retired at the end of the three year old campaign and move on to a new (money-making) career as a stud or broodmare. The idea is to avoid a fatal injury like the ones suffered by Ruffian and possibly Barbaro. At most, they'll race for one more year in the hopes of increasing their value even more by winning some major handicap races.
  • Age 5 and over: Horses not retired for breeding or due to injury may continue to race up to age seven. Geldings who are earning money and are still sound may continue on a couple years beyond that. Horses whose ages are in the double digits are pretty much unheard of, at least on major tracks.

So big and strong, and yet so incredibly fragile. Wear and tear, especially at such a young age can take a terrible toll. You've got a beautiful, powerful animal weighing in at over half a ton, who can clock forty miles per hour, and yet it only takes one bad step to completely destroy him.

This picture just says it all. From champion to casualty in a split second.

Photos: AP via Yahoo Sports

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