Tag Archives: horse-racing

Previously titled, My review of “Luck”

This morning, I was going to write a review of Luck, the horse-racing drama on HBO. I had finally seen the first two episodes, and I was very excited about it. Here, at last, was an amazing racing show. This was no Family Channel hash-up of The Black Stallion; this was really racing.

I was going to tell you that yes, the break-down scene in the first episode is brutal, nauseating even, but that the scene allows us to see the two sides of racing: the inhumanity as the bettors, who had been rooting for that horse to win so that they could collect a massive Pick Six pay-out, simply shift their alliance to the next longest-shot in the race and root him home, and the humanity, as the stricken bug boy leaves the track and asks veteran Gary Stevens if it ever gets any easier.

image from Luck

A trainer and horse in "Luck". Notice how the trainer is PETTING HIS HORSE AND SMILING, not BEATING IT WITH A TWO BY FOUR. Yes, this actually happens.

No, Stevens tells him. That’s what Jim Beam is for.

I was going to tell you that there are, indeed, both types at the racetrack, as there are anywhere: the callous who are looking for a quick buck, a sure thing, a hefty pay-out, and the compassionate, who understand that horses are living, feeling creatures.

I was just going to tell you it was a damn fine show.

Look it up on the Internet if you want, but don’t get too addicted. It’s been cancelled, apparently because three horses have died since the filming started.

I find this to be a nonsensical unlikely reason to cancel a show. Are HBO producers providing their own racehorses and training them for the production? Um, I sincerely doubt it. So tell me, how is a television show being filmed at a working racetrack liable for the deaths of horses in training? I suppose it’s possible that the horses tripped over camera wires or hit their heads on mike booms. But I feel like that would have been reported, probably on TMZ. If the horse died, they may want to talk to the horse’s trainer, not the people behind the cameras. Who is ultimately responsible?

I don’t know what happened to the first two horses, although I have read comments that suggest the deaths were in no way associated with the filming of the show. The third horse reared, flipped, and hit its head. As is accurately stated below…

“We see several of those injuries in the stable area every year,” Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director at the racing board, said in a statement supplied by HBO. “They are more common than people realize.”

…this sort of thing isn’t exactly a lone incident. And again, unless the horse spooked at an HBO camera being waved about at the end of the shedrow, I fail to see what this has to do with a television show.

PETA, of course, are making all sorts of statements about how dangerous the show’s production has been, and are filing complaints with the District Attorney’s office in L.A. While it’s quite likely that awful ratings played a bigger-than-announced part in the cancellation of Luck, it is annoying that PETA will probably take some of the credit for ending the show.

And it’s more than a little annoying that the show had to end for any reason, PETA or ratings. It should have been given a shot to win people over.

Could Luck have been good for racing, despite showing the good, the bad, and the monstrous? I think so, yes, and here is why: people only see the front-side right now. The front-side of racing happens in public. The front-side of racing isn’t the prettiest part, despite the suits and the braided manes. The front-side is where the gamblers are chomping on cigars and throwing down betting slips, shouting obscenities at jockeys and being generally horrible. The front-side is where all the money is. And money is just so unattractive.

Someone needs to show the back-side, where yes, bad things happen, but so do good things, just like in any other barn in any other horse sport. Someone needs to show a trainer leaning into his horse, rubbing her neck, whispering “You’re a good girl, you’re a good girl,” to her while she eats her hay. Someone needs to show a rider patting a horse and offering him a candy after a work-out. Someone needs to show the good parts as well as the bad parts. That’s the documentation racing needs, and does not have.

As for racehorses who die in training? Horses die in training every day, in every sport. Racehorses die on television. Show horses die on private farms, or at horse shows the average Joe will never know existed. Racehorses die and make the news. Show horses die and make horse blogs, or not at all.

And backyard horses, trail horses, pleasure horses, horses of every color and stripe and whinny and creed? They die, too.

But in racing, all the constant dangers of working with horses, their frequent injuries and ailments and bad behavior, are put on stage, televised, and recorded for posterity, every day of the week. And so for the average American, it looks like horses are injured or die in racing constantly, but never at all in the idyllic, green-pastures-world of show or pleasure life.

Google “horse deaths in racing” and you don’t even have to type in the letters “in racing”; Google already figured that’s what you were looking for. Look at the big news agencies and dedicated sites like racehorsedeathwatch.com.

Now Google “horse deaths in eventing.” Not so many sites pop up, eh? Dedicated horse sites and that New York Times story from 2008 on rotational falls. (And that was about rider deaths.) But these horses die, too. They break legs, they break necks, they  fall over fences or land badly… it happens! There was at least one horse death recently; a horse was put down after fracturing a leg cross-country. But I read that at Eventing Nation, not in the Times or USA Today. (And I can’t find it now… I think it was an aside, not a full entry.)

Horses are injured and die in the general day-to-day activities of just being a horse. There is a reason why veterinarians have 24-hour emergency numbers and big clinics have vets on the road 24/7. It’s a dangerous thing to be a horse. There are so many interesting ways to get hurt.

The point is, the poor public perception of racing is not extended to other horse sports because racing is done in full view of the public. The injuries are reported and, in the afternoons, televised. The deaths are public. The money changing hands is (usually) a matter of public record. The same cannot be said for any other horse sport. But let’s not kid ourselves, and pretend that racing is the only sport in which people make a lot of money off the backs of horses. Let’s be honest, and admit that there are show horse trainers making big bucks at the cost of their horses’ health and safety. Let’s stop blaming purses and betting for just a few moments, and acknowledge that even when the prize is a scrap of cheap fabric, people will spend fortunes to acquire it.

Racing is regulated, and watched, and there are constant efforts being made to make it safer and to protect the horses. Their footing is scrutinized, their handlers are licensed, their blood is tested. There are real efforts being made every day to protect racehorses from not just financial exploitation, but from themselves, from the naturally inherent dangers of being a horse.

I would worry more about the horse in this video, being mis-handled by rank amateurs and a kid in show clothes who lets her lead-rope dangle on the ground while she leads him from the wrong side, than I would about the average racehorse.

Regulation, and observation. If only every horse sport could boast the same attention and documentation as horse racing.

But then again, perhaps not. Perhaps if there were cameras trained, every day, on the training and showing of horses in all their myriad disciplines, all horse sports would find themselves blushing in the same negative light that horse racing has found itself.

Maybe racing didn’t need “Luck.” Maybe we already have too many cameras for the public to ever accept us. But there is good there, as well. I’m sorry more people don’t get the chance to see it.



Filed under Media Coverage, Racing, Stereotypes

Photoblog! A Day at Aqueduct

baked goods

If every racetrack offered a bake case like this, there would be more happy, sugared-up people at racetracks.

There’s nothing quite like spending a blustery February day at Aqueduct, and by nothing, I mean nothing except for perhaps heading to a walk-in cooler at your nearest restaurant and shutting yourself inside. But inside with some awesome horses! Today we hopped on the Crazy Train (that’s a colloquial term for the A train) and went out to the track. Aqueduct’s lonely train platform is a lot more crowded these days; the blinking, beeping, soul-sucking (I mean this in the nicest possible way) casino that replaced Aqueduct’s crumbling old grandstand attracts crowds that the horses haven’t been bringing out to Queens for decades, and do not get in Grandma’s way when she is trying to be first through the turnstiles on the way out of the station! She will run your butt over! Sing  it with me now: “The slots, the slots are calling…”

The plus side to the casino is that there is actually decent food to eat at the racetrack now, and the cream-cheese frosted brownie and the Starbucks coffee, liberally laced with actual half-and-half, may not have been the healthiest lunch option, but it’s a cut above the old “death before Sbarro’s” racetrack diet I used to be on. I was really tired of leaving the racetrack at five thirty with a headache from not eating all day!

So Scott, Thoroughbred gelding

I want him next!

It was an interesting day of races. There was one feature, the Busher, for three-year-old fillies, and then everything from $7500 claimers to starter allowances. The weather went from sunny to snow flurries, back to sunny, back to snow, all with a gale of a wind that would whip up from the south and blow sand in your face. It’s been a while since I had the grit of Aqueduct track between my teeth; today I tasted that dirt once again. Happily, it wasn’t because my entire face had just been ground into it while a horse tried to convince me to let go of the reins. Change is good.

There were a lot of favorites from big trainers, and the idea of the day was to try and find the sleeper horse that might come out of nowhere and surprise everyone. But they were few and far between. Every race seemed to have five favorites and two long-shots that were such long-shots not even I was going to mess with them. We did manage to get a first and a second with some slightly-better-than-even-money horses, but all in all it wasn’t a betting day. It was an enjoy the nice horses day.

Often one will just walk into the paddock that really catches my eye. The second So Scott, the dark bay pictured above, came down the ramp, I said “Oh I want him!” Yeah, he won his race. Look at the cheerful expression and that pretty body!

Stud Muffin, gray Thoroughbred racehorse

Stud Muffin, silencing the spindly-legged Thoroughbred complaint

Stud Muffin was in that race also. This horse came out looking like a show jumper, in full leg wraps and a dress sheet. (Public service announcement for all grooms: dress sheets and coolers have tail cords for a reason. If you use the tail cord, the rug will not end up over the horse’s ears from the wind, and you will not have a spooky horse with a rug over its ears. PSA out.) Anyway, Stud Muffin gets claimed every two races or so. He’s had like six owners in the past year. I feel kind of bad for him, but he keeps winning or placing, and he seems like he’s happy with his job, so I suppose he keeps going to barns that keep him in carrots, and that’s probably all he’s looking for.

I included the picture of Stud Muffin, not just because he’s beautiful of course, but because he is a nice reminder that large-boned Thoroughbreds are still bred, and it’s silly to argue that “all Thoroughbreds are being bred spindly-legged” and so forth! Thoroughbreds come in ALL shapes and sizes. In fact I saw one today, Lucky’s Dream, that was the spitting image of my first horse, a rugged Foundation-style Quarter Horse. It looked like someone had accidentally sent a cowhorse into the paddock. He was first out of the gate and finished second in a six-furlong race.

A few random shots:

racehorse saddled in paddock

This horse wouldn't go into the paddock stall. Instead of arguing, they just tacked him up in the paddock.

The track vet is always watching the horses, from the paddock to the starting gate to after the race, looking for signs of trouble. Here she is watching them come back from a race.

Track vet watching horses

The track vet

There were beautiful clouds passing through and occasional little bursts of snow flurries. Here is one of my favorite clouds, almost on par with the gorgeous thunderclouds that pass over Florida all summer long:

snow clouds, queens ny

Snow flurries and amazing clouds

Only the very rugged can survive running their horses all winter long on the frost-free inner track at Aqueduct; I was reminded of this several times when old friends and trainers came up to say hello and ask after us! I only made it through the end of December, after all, before I was just too frozen to put my feet in the stirrup irons any longer. I’d much rather spend my winters at Gulfstream or Tampa, but it’s nice to have Aqueduct here as a little get-away from the city, all winter long.


Filed under racetrack life, Racing

The Epic Epicness that is Kauto Star

Yesterday on Retired Racehorse I shared a blog post about Kauto Star, the eleven year old National Hunt horse who took back his Betfair Chase championship for a fourth time.

Then last night I found an insane photograph of Kauto Star in mid-flight and shared it on Twitter. I got about twenty new followers and I’m looking forward to learning a lot more about English racing from this little beaut!:

Kauto Star in the Gold Cup. I'm looking for the photo credit.

Okay, first, did you know that Thoroughbreds actually take flight? Why would anyone jump anything else? I ask you?! 

Secondly, I was up at one o’clock this morning watching this amazing video of Kauto Star’s Betfair Chase. Watch how comfortably he gallops and takes these fences.  It is simply a beautiful thing. I’m not clever enough to figure out the embed, so follow this link to Sporting Life.


Note: the original version that went out to subscribers said this was his Gold Cup win. It wasn’t. I’m just figuring out all these different races! 


Filed under Media Coverage, Outside Sites, Racing

The Whip Ban Changes the Game

Horse racing in Sligo, Ireland

Image via Wikipedia

UK racing’s whip ban has ignited a storm of controversy as riders are suspended left and right for breaking the strict new rules on smacking a horse with the stick.

Yesterday, sitting on a bus that wasn’t going anywhere fast, I had some time to sit and think about the whip rules. And here is what I concluded:

Banning the stick would be good for the horse racing game.

Now, I’ve always carried a whip on a racehorse, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before. When you don’t have the benefit of your seat and legs, a tap (or a smack) with the whip to make a request is a huge deal. It’s a reminder to stay straight, a request to swap a lead, or a demand to stop bucking and concentrate! Whips on the training track are a safety issue.

Once I had to breeze a horse without a stick. Ours had gone missing and no one in the barn had an extra one I could borrow. He was a fast little horse that was full of run and I thought, okay, we can manage this.

But the work went so slowly, it was embarrassing. I held the horse tightly in check until the three/eighths pole, as instructed, and then let him go and asked for run. He gave me a little but soon petered out when he felt like he was finished.

This should have taught me that he didn’t want to run. It didn’t, though. It taught me that I needed to carry a whip every time I breezed, to get the run out of him.

From the Sydney Morning Herald: Click for an excellent Opinion piece on whipping from 2009!

Now I wonder about this strategy. British racing has just changed the game. By limiting the number of times a jockey can hit the horse, they change who will win the race. Now, races won’t always be won by the fastest horse with the best trip. They’ll be run by the fastest horses with the best trip who want to win the race.

That’s significant.

“Horses want to run” is the most commonly-used and most skeptically-received explanation when a horse-racing aficionado is speaking to a concerned bystander. “If horses want to run,” the bystander invariably replies, “Why does the jockey have to hit them?”

In training situations, then, yes, a whip is a safety issue. A whack here or a whack there, to straighten out the horse in a race, then, might be a safety requirement.

But when it comes to the push in the homestretch?

Forget the whips. Let the horse that wants to run, win the race.

As for the little horse who was always so eager to run, but when finally asked to breeze without a stick, went nowhere?

He’s still never won a race.

He doesn’t want to.


Filed under Racing

Thoroughbreds On Sale at Suffolk!

Summer is over and gone (at least in the Northeast) and if you’re a Thoroughbred at Suffolk Downs in Boston, you’re getting ready for a change of scenery. The 2011 meet ends on November 5th, and while a lot of trainers head south to Florida for the winter season, they aren’t usually keen on taking all of their horses.

It’s a long, expensive trip, and Florida’s three-track winter racing circuit is tougher than Suffolk’s.

CANTER New England gets busy every fall at Suffolk, connecting with trainers to find out which horses they think are ready for new careers, and providing them with listings on the organization’s website.

Trainer-listed horses are not adoptions — purchasers are buying directly from the trainer — which means they’re not bound by an adoption contract. Sporthorse trainers looking for project horses, take note!

There are more than one hundred horses currently listed, in all ages, sizes, colors, and breedings.

I’ll feature a few in their own posts, but here’s a tantalizing preview of what they have to offer…

Cajun Quickstep, 16.3 4 yo gelding

Cajun Quickstep, 16.3 4 yo gelding

Like size on your horse? Got long legs? Cajun Quickstep is 16.3 hands high and has he ever got a gorgeous body! Excuse me while I drool over that croup for a while. Oh wait, I have to admire his shoulder… Now I’m picturing myself jogging him at Rolex for the horse inspection…

Okay, I’m back.

Cajun Quickstep is listed at $750.

Someone buy this horse before I do something stupid.


LINK: NE Trainer Listings – Page 1 of 3.





Filed under Outside Sites, Retirement Options, Selling Horses, Sport Horses, Uncategorized

Dispatches From a Day at the Races – The Triangle Blog.

Don’t miss this lovely write-up of an afternoon at Saratoga!

I especially love the moments spent with the placing judges – a corner of the racetrack I’ve never been:

They have their own language: “Three, four, eight, two. Two and eight on the bottom. Eight and two on the bottom. One in the red coat is coming, go! Three, eight, one, four. Good, that’s all. He’s getting wobbles but he’ll make it. Three, one, eight, and a photo finish.”

That’s all you’ll get from me! Go and read it!

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by | September 1, 2011 · 4:05 pm

The breed is indeed faster, but can it carry its speed here? « Sid Fernando + Observations

Royal Gem (AUS) was a versatile Thoroughbred r...

Image via Wikipedia: "Royal Gem (AUS) was a versatile Thoroughbred racehorse that won 23 races ranging from 5 furlongs to 12 furlongs. He was later a successful sire in the United States."

The breed is indeed faster, but can it carry its speed here? « Sid Fernando + Observations.

This is the argument that sporthorse enthusiasts and professionals have been making for the past two decades, while they merrily import Warmbloods and breed their own horses, seeking out the sturdy legs and stamina that Thoroughbreds were once known for – American Thoroughbreds are bred to run too fast, too briefly.

Here’s a little history lesson from Professor Sid on the length of US graded stakes races:

When Graded races first started in the US in the early 1970s, two races were given Grade 1 status at 1 3/4 miles or beyond: the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at two miles on dirt and the Grade 1 San Juan Capistrano at one and three-quarter miles on turf. At the same time—and can you believe this?!—there were no Grade 1 races at six furlongs, and only one at seven furlongs—the Vosburgh. Now, however, there are no Grade 1 races at those extreme distances, but there are several at six furlongs, with most on dirt in the eight-to-nine furlong range.

It’s interesting to note that The Jockey Club Gold Cup started at 2 miles. I loved it as a kid because it was a mile and a half race. The JC Gold Cup dropped to a mile and a quarter in 1990, leaving it just another under-filled stakes race right before the Breeders’ Cup, which itself has enough sprint divisions to suit every sort of short-distance runner.

The question that this article brings up, though, is that without a proving ground for horses to run more than eight or nine furlongs, do we really know if they just can’t do it? The long-distance horses either disappear (there aren’t races written for them) or they go to steeplechasing (where, interestingly, horses tend to run well into their mature years.)

So, are Thoroughbreds these days little more than glorified Quarter Horses, galloping six furlongs as fast as they can and retreating to the breeding farm at age 3? Or could they be so much more?

Be sure to click over and read the whole post from Sid Fernando.


Filed under Outside Sites, Racing