Allow me to put a spin on an old legal adage: If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have compassion on your side, argue compassion. If you have neither, use some rhetorical flourishes and distract like hell. In a recent Daily Racing Form article, columnist Jay Hovdey reviewed last Thursday’s meeting of the California Horse Racing Board, where, you may recall, activist after activist rose to decry the cruelty and the killing at Santa Anita Park:
“There was no arguing with the animal rights protesters who flooded the [CHRB] meeting on Thursday with their impassioned recitation of undeniably grim statistics. From their point of view, the business itself is terminally flawed, and no amount of anecdotal testimony to the contrary would convince them otherwise.
To them – as opposed to us – Thoroughbred racing is replete with casual sadists and greedy entrepreneurs whose callous disregard for the well-being of its captive horses belies any sob stories of dedication to the health and welfare of the animals. ‘Set them free’ is their mantra. Relegate them to the wilds of unspecified sanctuaries. Race drones or small children if you must. But leave the horses be.”
Well, at least he didn’t (because, of course, he can’t) try to refute the “grim statistics.” Of course, Mr. Hovdey, we are not seeking to set any domesticated horse (or any domesticated animal, for that matter) free. That would be cruel. But you know that already, don’t you? “Set them free,” “race drones or small children” – I get it, having a laugh at our expense. That’s fine. Truth is, I would have ignored this altogether – simply dismissing it as the pathetic rantings of a sad, old racing hack pandering to an equally sad and rapidly fading base – had you not debased yourself even lower:
“In my wildest dreams, while listening to the audio feed of the CHRB meeting and its denigration of all things racing, I imagined chairman Chuck Winner producing a speaker’s request card and calling out the name, ‘Martine Bellocq.’
Martine would enter in her wheelchair, pushed by her husband, Pierre Bellocq Jr., with cap, sunglasses, and gloves protecting her tender skin grafts and her left leg slightly elevated, a concession to the circulatory complications caused by the amputation of her foot.
Her voice is high-pitched and strained now as a result of smoke inhalation and corrosive pulmonary lavage, but Martine would not need to say much. Her actions of Dec. 7, 2017, at her barn at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, speak louder than the loudest of protests raised in opposition to the life she has led for most of her 64 years.
Of course, someone at the meeting would have pointed out in protest that if there were no horse racing, and therefore no training center, Bellocq’s horses would not have been in danger as a fast-moving finger of the Lilac Fire swept through the southern end of her barn. That sort of logic also would get you tossed as a hopeless lightweight in a freshman class debate.
Bellocq plunged into the smoke and flames that day in an effort to lead her colt Wild Bill Hickory from his stall. That he had shown promise as a young equine athlete was beside the point. The committed caretaker in Bellocq could see only her panicked young creature at horrible risk and did something only a mother, or a fully protected firefighter, would do.
The terrified colt would not budge, though, and became one of 46 horses who died in the fire. Bellocq sustained third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body before Pierre reached her and carried her out of the inferno. He was treated for smoke inhalation, but he recovered and sounded just fine, as usual, when they were reached at home on the afternoon of the CHRB meeting. It had been a tough week.
‘There’s still a lot of healing going on with her skin,’ Pierre said, as Martine coached him from the background. ‘And there are complications with blood clots in her leg, which holds up progress with her prosthesis. I just hope her spirits can hold up.’ And from Martine came, ‘We’ve got to win a race!’
That’s right, the Bellocqs are still in the game, with a small stable in one of the new, canvas-topped structures at San Luis Rey. They had a pair of seconds last month with the maiden full sisters Brite Rivers and Lucky Brite Eye, and Saturday night they had the filly Grey Tsunami entered in a mixed race at Los Alamitos.”
First, what happened at San Luis Rey was a massacre – a massacre, this lightweight says, for which Racing bears full responsibility. (A reminder of that massacre, from Pierre’s memory, The San Diego Union-Tribune: “The first thing I saw was Billy…He laid down, his legs burned to the knees and the hocks. There was nothing below the knees. He must have thrown himself into the shed row, in flames. It’s the most horrible scene I’d ever seen.”) But beyond the snarky shots and crass manipulation lies this uncomfortable truth: While I am sincerely sorry for this woman’s fate, and the suffering she continues to endure, holding her up as the embodiment of “Horseracing cares” underscores the sorry and increasingly desperate state of the industry. “Something only a mother” would have done, Mr. Hovdey? Well:
What kind of mother would rip her child from his actual mother (and other family) while still just a babe?
What kind of mother would keep her child locked – alone – in a tiny room for over 23 hours a day?
What kind of mother would allow her child to be whipped?
What kind of mother would put her child up “For Sale,” as Bellocq did last month with each of those aforementioned horses? (In fact, Bellocq will have Brite Rivers on the market again in just three days’ time.)
What kind of mother would risk having her child fall into unscrupulous hands this way, perhaps even into a kill-buyer’s?
What kind of mother would put her child’s life in grave danger – every two or three weeks – as a means of enriching herself?
A mother? If not for the gravity involved, ‘twould be risible.
(Anticipating backlash, let me reiterate: I feel bad for Ms. Bellocq and wish her the best in recovery. This is really not about her; rather, it’s an indictment of those, like Jay Hovdey, who will stop at nothing – exploiting someone’s personal tragedy, e.g. – in order to preserve their precious bloodsport.)