Horse Racing Is in the Home Stretch

Note: I’m taking a break from my usual subjects to write this piece about horse racing and the Kentucky Derby.

I sat on the floor in front of the TV, just days after surgery. I was going to be fine, but I was sore, scared and shell-shocked. My grandparents came over. I was spread out with the morning paper in front of me, looking at, what I think was for the first time, actual color in a newspaper: the silks of the jockeys to be worn during the Kentucky Derby.

I can’t remember those colors now, but I remember being pretty damn excited when the horse I picked, Genuine Risk, won. At the time she was only the second filly to win the Derby; by now the total is just three.

I was hooked.

It didn’t take moving away from Louisville for me to appreciate the Kentucky Derby. I had gone three times towards the end of high school. At my first Derby in 1990, my friends and I somehow snuck up from the second floor grandstand into the third floor clubhouse and found an empty box of seats near the finish line about 20 minutes before the race. We watched Unbridled cross the finish line first in style. I’ve never gotten seats for the Derby like that since.

But it wasn’t until I started spending the first Saturday of May in other places that I longed for the Derby, and allowed it to stand in for all the emotions I have about having moved away from home. Yes, I admit, I tear up during the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” I took on Derby Day as a personal holiday.

I threw Derby parties. I learned HTML and web production by building my first web site all about the Kentucky Derby. I haven’t been bashful in talking it up, recruiting friends, obsessing over it, promoting my picks, showcasing my hats.

For years I’ve been happy to serve as an ambassador for Louisville, the Derby and horse racing in general.

Which is why it pains me to say this.

I’m in Louisville for the weekend to attend my 8th Kentucky Derby. But if the sport and industry of horse racing doesn’t change its way of operations to actually do what is says it does in always putting the safety of horses first, then this Derby will be my last.

I won’t be afraid to walk way. I’d be proud to.

As much as I like the fanfare of it all, as much as I love taking in the spectacle of the paddock at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, as much as I love a good Derby party, and a day dedicated to frivolity and fun, none of that matters if the sport continues to treat horses with a second-best, laissez-faire attitude. And if the sport can’t hold onto fans like me, then all those stories you see this time of year about the worrying future of horse racing will become true.

Something funny happened during all those post parades, all those parties, all the time spent studying the racing from and speed figures in trying to formulate my Derby picks.

For the last four years me and a group of guys have traveled to Saratoga Springs to spend a weekend together, with two days at Saratoga Race Course. We try to land in the same spot, situated perfectly between trees, TV sets and right next to the path the horses take on their way to and from the track.

We’re right there as they walk by. We can see how big and beautiful and powerful they are. And you can’t help but admire them, their energy, their curiosity, their strength.

Watch horse racing enough, and you slowly become more and more enamored of the horses themselves. They become less a number in the racing form and more of a real personality, a real live being. You pull for them, want the best for them, like seeing them live out their lives on a farm somewhere, running through fields of grass.

And around that time you start to see the horror stories. Of what happens to horse when their racing and breeding careers are over. It’s not a pretty picture, which is why I make sure to give to and support places like Old Friends, which provides a retirement home for thoroughbreds whose days of financial windfall for their owners is behind them.

But that was always one step removed from the sport itself.

For years, approaching decades now, the sport and industry of horse racing (I lump those two together because racing and breeding are so intertwined) have given merely lip service to making substantive changes that would benefit the equine athletes that are the center of everything.

And what has changed? Nothing.

When Eight Belles collapsed and died after the 2008 Kentucky Derby, there were no changes implemented. When Barbaro was injured in the 2006 Preakness and eventually succumbed to his injuries, nothing happened.

Horse racing took the approach of waiting for public relations disasters to pass, then moving on as normal. All the while, the sport moved further and further away from the mainstream.

Sure, attendance and TV ratings of the Triple Crown races are up. But throughout the country, field sizes of races have shrunk, handle (the amount wagered) is down, general fan interest, other than on Derby Day, is hardly anything at all.

Then came this past winter at Santa Anita.

23 horses suffered fatal injuries at Santa Anita Park in southern California from Dec. 26 through mid-April. The region suffered higher than average rainfall, and the track lost its long-time superintendent before the track re-opened for the winter and spring.

He was brought back, changes were made to the racing surface, and the situation there seems to have stabilized.

After the ensuing public relations disaster of nearly two dozen horses dying at the hands of seemingly capricious and uncaring owners and trainers, the owner of Santa Anita, along with the California Horse Racing Board, has voluntarily implemented the first set of significant rules changes the sport has seen in decades.

Use of a whip by the jockey will be curtailed. Horses will no longer be able to take Lasix, an anti-bleeding medication, on the days they race. More will be done to examine the quality and safety of track surfaces. In response, other tracks across the country have agreed to the same rules, including Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

It’s about time.

But it might still be too late.

I love the Derby. I love taking time out from everyday life and escaping to the track. And I’ve had no problem acting as an amateur ambassador for the sport.

But that love is not unconditional.

I won’t continue to support or vouch for a sport that essentially lies when it says it does all it can to protect the safety and well-being of its star athletes. The new rules are a good start, an indication that maybe the sport is finally willing to listen to what the public is demanding of it. But it’s not enough.

Even without the fatalities and injuries, horse racing is facing an uphill climb not just to remain relevant in today’s entertainment and sports world, but a vibrant, functioning presence at all.

And that really is a shame, because a day at the track with friends and family can truly be a lot of fun, and being around the horses and that environment, and a decidedly quieter, slower day can be refreshing. (This does not apply to Kentucky Derby Day, which is a madhouse and over-the-top oval of craziness and insanity.)

But the bottom line is this:

No one, even fans like myself, can justify going if the risk of injury to the horses isn’t mitigated as much as possible.

Fans and the general public have for year been clamoring for the sport to please, finally, get serious about creating the safest training and racing conditions possible for the horses involved. We are so far removed from that right now that we are at the point where even casual fans have to ask themselves if the fun and frivolity of the Derby and other races is worth it.

I want it to be. I hope it to be.

But right now? I’ll be walking under the Twin Spires on Derby Day not feeling all that great about it, feeling kind of guilty, kind of uneasy, almost complicit.

I don’t have to put up with that, and I sure as hell don’t have to pay for it or vouch for it with my money and presence.

So, to those in the horse racing world who can do something, please.

Ban the drugs. Toss the whip. Change all racing surfaces if you have to. I understand risk and danger lie around every turn, with each step. Nothing can be done to ameliorate that risk 100%. That’s fine.

But we can do the most we can do. Anything less is unacceptable.

Until everyone is assured that the sport is doing everything possible to make horses safe, the sport, and its fans, will have to live with this sickening reputation and culpability.

I won’t raise a mint julep to that. And I’ll find another weekend to visit my old Kentucky home.

Have any feedback? I can be reached at scottmgilman @ gmail.com.

Thinking and writing about my place in the world, and making myself (and the world) a little bit better.

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