Two-year-old Charmed Hour, running only her 2nd race, shattered her right front cannon bone during Sunday’s Grade 2 Adirondack (for fillies) in Saratoga. She was euthanized on the track. With the added intrigue of a winner disqualification, Charmed Hour’s fall was barely mentioned by media outlets: The Saratogian, 1 paragraph in 12; the Paulick Report, 1 sentence in 21; the Times Union, 2 sentences in 14; and The Daily Gazette, which, in addition to a similar disparity, reported that “the fatality was the first of the meet, in either racing or training.” Not true, and something the newspaper should have known. 2013 death count at sunny Saratoga: 2.
In a 2002 The Michigan Thoroughbred (published by the Michigan Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association) article, “These Gallant Geldings,” the author touts the value of claimers, calling them “the backbone of the daily racing program.” Injuries, the magazine says, are hardly a reason to retire these crucial card fillers: “Perhaps they have suffered an injury that has compromised their chances of running at full potential. For whatever reason they are training along side some of the best and putting on a substantial part of the racing program at most tracks. They are the bread and butter horses of daily racing. Most of these claimers are geldings, as they have no residual breeding potential and therefore have an extended [italics added] racing career.”
The article went on to happily report that nine-year-old Shamanuu edged out eight-year-old Brash Tony for 2001 Claimer of the Year at Great Lakes Downs in Michigan: “Both of these gallant geldings have shown they love to run! They have shown great heart, are competitive and determined. They are great examples of all the characteristics we value in a racehorse. The fact that they raced at a lower level than stakes horses should not diminish their achievements, as they are the backbone of the racing industry.” The vote, as it turns out, was a shameful deception, for one of the gallants in the running was already dead. Yes, dead, before the ballots were even cast.
We first encountered Brash Tony in the late fall of 2001. Our weekly visits to Great Lakes Downs, walking the shedrows looking for possible rescues, were coming to an end along with that year’s race meet. The Thoroughbreds at this small track would soon be moving on to the next circuit stop, and if no onsite rescue existed there, the injured or physically compromised would be prime targets for slaughter. That morning, Brash Tony, visibly limping, was tethered to an automatic walking machine, head bobbing with each painful step. Round and round he went, trying mightily to keep pace. We knew right then that this poor horse needed saving. Our request was summarily denied. The trainer insisted he had no injuries, describing the arthritic horse as “just a lazy son of a bitch that takes a long time to warm up.” His prescription for indolence: “I make him loosen up and go on the walking machine for several hours each day.” Several hours.
With the trainer unmoved, we approached Brash Tony’s diamond and gold-clad owner, who was taking in morning practice. Donation, of course, was out of the question, but he “generously” offered Brash Tony for $600, an inflated price for a broken, dispirited animal probably destined for euthanasia. We, of course, paid his asking price and immediately took him to see an equine orthopedic surgeon at Michigan State University. The good doctor, knowing how excruciating each step had become, brought the radiology equipment to the patient. The x-rays confirmed our fears: Brash Tony was beyond help, even his standing state a painful one. And so, on a crisp November day in 2001, Brash Tony was peacefully laid to rest. His “extended racing career,” his years of servitude mercifully at an end. No more masters, no more seedy tracks, no more whips, no more painkillers, no more walking machines, no more suffering. Gentle release.
Michigan requires pre-race exams to ensure that only the sound run, but the state vets at Great Lakes failed their duty. Brash Tony was forced to the gate, arthritic legs (at eight, he should have been in his prime) and all. In the end, he was killed by simple human greed. Shamanuu, career earner of almost $200,000, started his last race the following April at Illinois’ Sportsman Park. Pulling up early on, the other “gallant gelding” was “vanned off,” never to be heard from again. Coincidentally, this was the same month his “victory” was announced in The Michigan Thoroughbred. Life for “bread and butter” claimers is even worse today as racino-bloated purses entice horsemen to run their damaged assets in low-risk, high-reward races. If a bone snaps, no great loss, for other cheap, anonymous horses await. Brash Tony and Shamanuu toiled a world away from Triple Crown pageantry, a world where mainstream media and casual fans rarely stray. Sad, indeed.
$1,225,000. That’s what a filly relative of Barbaro and AP Indy fetched at the Saratoga Sale of Selected Yearlings this past Monday and Tuesday. All seemed happy with the final numbers: 108 horses sold for a cumulative total of $31.87 million. For those keeping track, a little over $295,000 a horse, or the price of a nice home in Loudonville. Wow. Even better for the horse people, the “buyback rate” (horses left unsold) was 21%, down from 2012’s 34%. According to house president Boyd Browning Jr, we have “a healthy marketplace.”
The Thoroughbred (cattle) auction is the modern day equivalent of the slave block, you know, the kind where strapping bucks and pretty wenches were gathered and traded in the center of town. Here, an interjection is necessary: As it’s a good bet that virtually every animal activist on the planet would have also embraced 19th Century abolitionism, no need to apologize for the parallel. If it looks like a slave, sounds like a slave, and acts like a slave, then a slave it is. That said, the racehorse buyer can’t even claim economic survival; he subjugates for fun. Think of the good that could have come from the obscene amounts expended this week on Thoroughbreds. On an elitist hobby. They should be ashamed. I know they are not.
Animal Aid (UK) reports that over 1,000 racehorses have died on British tracks since 2007. This total, however, is significantly understated (by up to 30%) as horses receiving “elective euthanasia” at the racetrack are not included in the British Horseracing Authority’s (BHA) official figures. It appears that the jump-race horse is the most vulnerable, with, according to Animal Aid, a 1 in 42 chance of dying over the course of a year. Animal Aid’s Dene Stansall says (The Guardian, 8/3/13), “…punters should be aware of a basic truth. And this is that betting on horses means horses will suffer and die.” A BHA spokesman counters, “Racing is a sport that carries risk, and British racing is honest and open about the risks involved.” So once again, here we are in the year 2013 still talking about “sport” and death. Public, awake.
Derby and Preakness-winning trainer Doug O’Neill, known as “Drug” O’Neill in some circles, has been suspended twice (Illinois 2010, California 2012) for elevated TCO2 levels in his horses, a condition commonly achieved via an illegal (on race day), fatigue-fighting concoction known as a “milkshake.” In an interview with NPR (5/9/12), New York Times reporter Walt Bogdanich says O’Neill has 15 career drug violations. Worse still, according to the Times (5/10/12), the esteemed trainer has an injury/breakdown rate that is more than double the national average.
For his part, O’Neill denies “milkshaking” his Thoroughbreds, but accepts responsibility for the high casualties (The Washington Post, 4/29/13): “We had a period when we had a rash of injuries and I had to look in the mirror. I was running horses too often; I was a little sloppy there.” “A little sloppy”?
So it was against this backdrop that some of California’s brightest decided to “roast” (honor) their animal-abusing friend this past Saturday night. The Paulick Report (8/4/13) notes that “Milkshake” was both the evening’s theme song and featured dessert. This gem from radio host Tim Conway Jr best sums the night’s humor: “Most horses when they’re done go out to pasture or to stud. Dougie’s go to the Betty Ford Clinic.” Sitting on the VIP throne, “Dougie” laughed right along. There are some who argue that comedy should have no bounds, that we should be able to laugh at ourselves and the world around us. But there are lines when the fodder comes from cruelty to others, innocents, in this case. Those horses have no choice but to take what Doug O’Neill does to them, gives to them. Sorry, not funny.