Last night, there was a flurry of attention over an eight-year-old Thoroughbred gelding named Scat Thief, who had been discovered in a pen at an auction in Chino, California, thin, unkempt, and looking generally dejected.
This isn’t an unusual occurrence, of course. Thoroughbreds, even Thoroughbreds like Scat Thief, who had earned more than $183,000 in 34 starts, end up in auction pens, the back of slaughter-bound trucks, or just plain abandoned in fields, all the time. But this guy really bothered me.
I looked him and thought, “Baby, what’s happened to you in the past two years? What have you seen? Where have you been? Do your racetrack owners know what happened to you? What would they say if they could see you now?”
I started networking for him. I posted a link for donations to Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue on my Twitter and Facebook pages. I kept checking for updates—has he gone through the auction ring yet? Do they have enough money for him yet? I NEED TO KNOW!
In the end, it turned out that a lot of people were looking out for Scat Thief last night. Not only SoCal TB Rescue, but Whispering Meadows Ranch, a Thoroughbred rescue, had their eye on the gelding, and took him home to their retirement farm.
I could relax.
And ask myself, why did I get so emotional about Scat Thief?
My eye fell on the book lying to one side of my desk. Of course.
It was all Raja’s fault.
I first read Black Beauty when I was seven years old, and became a righteous member of the anti-bearing-rein community. I had no idea what a bearing rein might actually be, but Black Beauty hadn’t liked it and therefore, neither did I.
And while Black Beauty did precipitate my life-long distrust of gadgetry on horses, the tale of the sad fall of a carriage horse did more than that. For me, as for so many other pony-mad girls, Black Beauty’s true lesson was in humanity towards animals, an early primer on how they are truly dependent on us in every way.
All of that when I was seven; Raja reminded me of that just this past week.
“Black Beauty meets Black Stallion meets National Velvet meets Seabiscuit.” That’s how author Anne Hambleton, herself a former steeplechase jockey, describes Raja: Story of a Racehorse. And she’s right, it’s all there. The slippery slope from champion to the back pasture, the thunder of hooves on the racetrack and the polite applause of the A-circuit, the old friends in unexpected places and the fierce young girl willing to throw her heart over the fence and chase on after.
It’s also a dizzying account of just how quickly a horse can be cycled through homes and careers. Raja, a top-tier Thoroughbred, starts out with a promising juvenile career at Saratoga, but soon finds that a horse’s lot is to be sold, and bought, and given away, and auctioned off, again and again, trailed by a terror of lightning bolts and a tragic sense that he had been destined for great things. Raja’s black rain cloud follows him wherever he goes, and lets loose with the thunder and lightning every time things start to look up.
But you know what the t-shirt says: “Every horse deserves his very own little girl.” Raja, the ambitious Thoroughbred who just wants to be the best, might have been looking for luck in all the wrong places.
In doing so, Raja visits some of the equestrian community’s most fabled locales: the hills of Ocala, the tight turns of Gulfstream Park, the endless summer of Saratoga, the ocean breezes of the Hampton Classic. In each case, Hambleton shows she writes from experience as she evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of these wonderful spots. Here is a first walk through Saratoga:
We walked past endless green shed row barns. Overstuffed hay nets and well-scrubbed colored plastic feed tubs perched next to stalls shaded by baskets overflowing with pink and red blossoms. Gleaming leather halters with polished brass name plates glinted and winked in the golden sunlight. Horses, everywhere, jigging out to the track to train with their riders laughing and joking, hot walking in circles in front of barns, or standing as they were bathed, with steam swirling from their backs.
I can see it now. I can smell the liniment, I can hear the sounds of hooves walking on pavement, I can see the early morning sunlight dappling on the flower-baskets.
Dotting the book are pencil illustrations by Peggy Kauffman, which help bring the vastly diverse careers that Raja holds to life.
Told in a charming first-person voice, with all the chatty horses Raja encounters on his travels weighing in on everything from fox-hunting to race records, Raja: Story of a Racehorse should be required reading for horse-obsessed kids, and will absolutely please their adult counterparts.