I believe in horse racing.
Anyone who watched the 2006 Preakness stakes or this year’s Kentucky Derby saw the devastation of a tragic misstep on an animal, a sport, and an industry. My goal is not to convince the public that horse racing is safe or that the deaths of Barbaro and Eight Belles were anomalies. I merely wish to explain why I will keep coming back to the races anyway.
This is not going to be a discourse on the beauty and power of death. Horse racing is so totally and completely about life, vivacity, and freedom that the shock of a breakdown completely disrupts the ambience of a track. Watching a horse break down is like watching the Titanic sink. It seems completely at odds with reality that an iceberg could bring down a ship like Titanic, or that a tiny stumble could end a racehorse’s career or life. I do not want to ignore tragedies, but in order to understand horse racing, it is important to understand horse racing as it should be, the horse racing that is worthy of salvaging.
Believing in horse racing is embracing the salty-sweet racing world where grace and power coalesce, wizards turn washed-up claimers in champions, and doll-men fly by at thirty-eight miles per hour on 1200 pounds of pure locomotion. Thoroughbred racehorses have running in their blood, every atom of their being designed for speed. A racehorse in motion stretches out his neck, shoulder and quarter muscles corded, nostrils flared, legs devouring the ground. For a moment in each gallop stride, all four feet leave terra firma and the horse literally takes flight, a flesh-and-blood Pegasus.
Despite their Olympian capabilities, racehorses are imperfect heroes. People love those flawed zephyrs, the horses who run through pain and defeat, whose stories strain credulity; who would rather die than stop running. Racing fans live for their miracle horses whose lives blur the line between reality and myth. These real legends become household names, the sort of names that trip off the tongue in a reverent hush: War Admiral, Eclipse, Man O’ War, Secretariat, Seabiscuit. These horses have an old-world romance, like the Three Musketeers or John Wayne, mixed with a quality of divinity that raises them up above mere human affairs and into the realm of the supernatural. The best ones have a “look of the eagles” giving them the same benevolent contempt found the in far-seeing eyes of a bird of prey gazing at the pitiful figures of earth-bound mortals.
Despite this innate arrogance, racehorses never succumb to the same vices as human athletes. Racehorses are perhaps the only truly honest celebrities today. The horses come to the track only to do what they were born and bred to do—run. And when they run, it is incomparable to anything else in this world.
And so, despite the tragedies, I will return to horse racing, to feel the earth rumble under the feet of Titans once more.