These Horses Are Too Young to Die

In 1972, the year before Secretariat made racing history, I was raking manure around a fenced-in patch of dirt in Laurel Hollow, N.Y. I was a teenage rider. My world was horses. The ideal summer job was nearby, at Belmont or Aqueduct or a small training track. Then I flunked my road test and was ferried back and forth to my dad’s factory while summer galloped away. I still wonder at the things he made me do — killing wasps two stories up on an extension ladder, scrubbing up with gasoline. By the time fall rolled around, the last thing I wanted was a risky job.

I’ve followed racing since then, from my own perspective. I’m an old rider now, and I ride an old horse.

Horse racing is a spectacle of youth and age. Jockeys are competitive at 50; the well-heeled owners are often much older, and many of the horses have seen so little of life they’ve never eaten a carrot. Thoroughbreds die at the track, and it goes without saying that they all die young: 37 horses have perished at the Santa Anita racetrack in California since the end of last year. The Breeders’ Cup races in early November were supposed to be a crucial test of the sport, and they magnified its dangers. Mongolian Groom broke a leg in the Classic, and Senator Dianne Feinstein rebelled. “The horse racing industry was unable to make it through a single weekend without a critical injury and a euthanized horse,” she said.

Now, at the end of the season, the controversy is muted. But next spring, it’ll come roaring back. My own horse, a wily little pinto named Spot, is 24. Mongolian Groom was 3. To say they have little in common is to ignore an important fact: racing is horses, and horses are easy to break.

Win or lose, every horse needs a future. I doubt anyone looks at a stream of shiny Thoroughbreds on their way to the post and imagines any of them even at 18 — the change of expression on an aging face, the sagging back, the chancy vision. I’ve ridden Thoroughbreds out fox hunting who’ve been around so long their lip tattoos are too blurry to read. But when horses are put to the most rigorous athletic tests of their lives at 2 and 3, most won’t make it that far. Plenty of 4-year-old racetrack rejects are already so arthritic they can’t be ridden for more than 20 minutes at a clip.

Not everybody gets to be Spot, of course, jumping logs in the woods when they’re way past average life expectancy. But then, the advantages of being Spot could help Thoroughbreds live more productive, saner lives.

I have a picture of Spot at 2. He’s standing in harness at a county fair, hitched to a light cart. He’s “weedy”: a gangly juvenile with a stringy mane and bad posture. He’s not going to be broke to ride for another couple of years. Experience will get layered on and rubbed in, like wax on a bassoon. Our outings are less exciting now that he doesn’t shy at butterflies any more, but the good part is we’ve cut the stupid mistakes down to zero. Years are expensive in the Thoroughbred industry, and years are what horses need.

The spectacle of 2-year-olds on the track, all slicked up before a race, is seductive. Bring a mature horse in and you’ll see the difference, as I did when the Irish-bred Glorious Empire, age 7, stepped into the paddock at Saratoga to run a mile and a half on grass. Putting them together would be like seeing a bunch of kittens next to a jaguar. He won.

There’s always a back story. Glorious Empire is a gelding and has no future in breeding. But one factor remains: The cannon bone in any Thoroughbred’s foreleg is about the same circumference as a good cannoli. It’s true what racing supporters say: Density depends on concussion, or the degree and frequency of impact on a horse’s legs. But researchers disagree on what kind of pounding produces the soundest horses, and much depends on where the research is done.

Horse racing is an industry, and industry vets aren’t obligated to see the whole picture. Elsewhere, horses in training enjoy ranging motion — walking for miles before breezing, the way they do in Europe, exercising on grass, running hills. In most of America, horses stand in a stall, and they race on dirt, which yields faster times. When they do get handled, it’s just the hustle to the track, the jog and then however many furlongs they’re running that day, 12 seconds per. And let’s not even get started with the drugs at American tracks, of which Lasix (furosemide), administered to give a breathing advantage, is only one.

In a New York State Senate hearing in Albany, a respected veterinarian, Kraig Kulikowski, posited the ideal age for horses to race. Three or 4? Nope: 6. But there’ll never be a sample big enough to prove it, not when horses like Justify are retired at 3 after only five starts.

Out on the old Rutland Railroad bed in the Hudson Valley, now covered with grass, I watch the landscape between Spot’s wise ears. We build muscle on hills, we gallop on yielding turf. When the footing is hard, we go slow. When something hurts, we rest. He’s the only horse I have, and I protect him.

Every racehorse has this potential, providing we don’t wreck them first. Few Thoroughbred farms bring every horse home after a career. More retraining programs such as the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s in Maryland and Take2 in New York are necessary. Abolishing racing altogether would maroon thousands of horses without any support.

This industry needs a stronger and more unified governing structure to rigorously enforce drug and animal welfare rules. People need to know what horses are capable of, given the right conditions. And the right conditions include a fair crack at life, starting with a chance to grow up. As for the extra flash it takes for a horse to become a legend, Spot may be slow, but he’ll get there.

Just wait till next year.

Sally Eckhoff is the author of the forthcoming memoir “How Horses Get Their Names.”

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