Every time I witness something like the breakdown of Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby, I tell myself I've watched my last horse race. Particularly after the filly's gallant stretch run. For a long moment it appeared she might actually catch Big Brown before the wire. The sight of veterinary vans encircling the stricken animal to prevent spectators from seeing her euthanized was unbearable.
Unlike some, I can't criticize NBC's coverage, because I couldn't watch it. My wife was crying like a child. Partly that's because we're horse people, a passion we came to relatively recently, causing us to rearrange our lives. I've come to feel that places that are no good for horses aren't particularly good for people. The most powerful surge of homesickness I've ever experienced struck me one humid evening in New York City some years ago. Walking up Fifth Avenue, I was surprised by the heavy, pungent odor of horses — the lineup of carriage horses along Central Park South, waiting patiently to take tourists clip-clopping through the park. I wanted to hail a cab to the airport on the spot.
Not that caring for a couple of middle-aged geldings gives me any special insights into the so-called "Sport of Kings." Well, maybe a few. First, tragedies like Eight Belles' death are an inherent part of horse racing. They can't be entirely prevented. Riding horses under any circumstances can be dangerous. When he first became acquainted with my quarter-horse Rusty, my farrier, an outspoken individualist like many people you meet around barns, warned that he was too headstrong and athletic for a middle-aged novice.
"You keep messin' with that big sumb***h," was how Tom put it, "and he's gonna hurt you."
Problem was, I'd already bought him. Not long afterward, I'd saved Rusty from a near-fatal colic attack on a 104-degree July day. It's hard to describe my emotions when he stopped while I was walking him out — he'd been staggering, in a daze — to nibble on clover. He was going to live. He drank something like eight half buckets of salty water at half-hour intervals that night — roughly 150 pounds of lost fluid.
So 10 years later, I reminded Tom that while Rusty had scared me half to death — stampeding with a deer herd toward a barbed-wire fence, for example — he'd never actually hurt me, apart from black eyes caused by low branches.
"Yeah, well, you, me and him are all gettin' old," Tom allowed. "If he kills you now, it won't be on purpose."
So yeah, there's a streak of fatalism among horse people. When you climb on an animal weighing between 1,000 and 1,300 pounds that can run 40 miles per hour in bursts with a mind and will of its own, bad things can happen. I know a barrel racer who had a horse fall on her, step on her face and break several ribs last year. She won another event a week later. That said, horses aren't anywhere near as life-threatening as, oh, the New Jersey Turnpike.
Second, people who imagine owners, trainers and jockeys cruel and indifferent — a New York Times columnist equated the sport to bullfighting — don't know what they're talking about. Horses get inside you; they just do. Along with their speed, power, and beauty — some of the earliest prehistoric cave paintings are of horses — they have vivid personalities, strong emotions, and no reticence about showing them. I once asked a racetrack trainer if it was possible that my silly horse, Lucky, actually feared a kind of orange butterfly that made him freeze up.
"They're not smart enough to lie," the fellow said. "If he acts scared, he's scared."
Of course, the real issue was whether Lucky trusted me. After he decided he did, he ignored the butterflies.
Third, 20 horses on a track with four turns isn't so much a race as a stampede. Especially since more than half have no realistic chance of winning, and are there to showcase their owners' ego and bankroll.
Fourth, running a filly with 19 strange stallions in front of 157,000 drunks is unacceptably risky. Wild horses live in herds controlled by bullying stallions ready to throw down and fight savagely at the slightest challenge. Under the veneer of her training, Eight Belles must have been amped for flight, halfway expecting an equine riot, and determined — this is the nature of racehorses — to show those swaggering punks her heels. She got all but one, didn't she? It may have killed her.
Last — and, to understand, it's necessary to read a knowledgeable track writer like the Washington Post's Andrew Beyer — thoroughbred racehorses are as much a product of human genetic manipulation as a dachshund. In American racing, they're breeding animals with too much muscle and bones like teacups. Something's got to change, and it might require political intervention.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.