Monday, May 04, 2009

Horses in the Mist

Idealized or Iconic?

As it does every year, the running of the Kentucky Derby this weekend has brought horses into the limelight. Witness the flood of documentaries and horse-related movies aired in the week preceding the event, and you'd have to believe that America--and possibly the world--has an ongoing love affair with equines that is unlikely to end. That a 50-to-1 shot horse brought home the roses may be the most important thing that's happened to the US since Funny Cide brought his novice owners fame and not a little fortune.

The horse business is in a serious slump. A high-end hobby does not fare well during a recession, and horses are nothing if not high-end, at least the way we do horses on the East Coast. The past couple of years' disasters in the eventing arena and the terrible ordeal of Barbaro's final months heaped nastiness upon our heads, joining the economy in bringing the industry to its knees.

But sometimes it's necessary to fall off the cliff to find out whether you have wings that will hold you or you'll just face-plant in the dust. Out of the rubble has arisen a new kind of horse world. Breed associations have made public statements decrying over-breeding (and crummy breeding). The Committees that Be have resolved to make the most challenging areas of the horse world safer for everyone. The race industry has taken the reins and made huge strides in protecting their own with retirement facilities for horses that would otherwise be left homeless or worse and help for the jockeys who give their all for this classic American pastime. Farm owners have done their part to help horse owners afford care; vets have donated services; rescues have sprung up everywhere. As professionals, we have finally begun to do ourselves proud.

There's a long row to hoe yet, however, before the country and the industry will see fruit from all this labor. But if ever there was a marker for a turnaround attitude in the country, this year's Derby is it. Over generations, Americans have connected their own fates and their prospects for the future to the stories of their racehorses, and this Derby offered more than its share of iconic moments.

  • The 2009 Derby was the maiden race for six of the trainers fielding horses. Talk about "Can Do!"
  • The winner, Mine That Bird, came from behind just inches from the rail and took the race like he'd bought it at a fire sale.
  • Several contenders who seemed destined for the Derby were sidelined by injuries, including the favorite, I Want Revenge.
How does all of that impact on us as a country? Well, for starters, it takes guts to put oneself into competition that is steep and deep, and most would say it's not a place for beginners. Yet six trainers jumped out there and gave it a shot. Mine That Bird, at 50-1, didn't seem to have a chance in hell of even finishing with the pack, but his jockey, Calvin Borel, who also won the 2007 Derby, did what had to be done and just rammed home the notion that no one can be counted out if they've got the guts to try.

Finally, racing saw to its own. The breakdown of Barbaro brought up many questions about the stress of racing on the horses that make the sport. To see an odds-on favorite--the hands-down presumed winner of this glory run--pulled due to a relatively minor injury that turned relatively major after he'd been scratched was refreshing. Damaged but not broken, he'll go on to run again ... or not. He may join the ranks of stallions fathering future winners. Regardless, he'll go on to a long and happy life. His owners and trainer were commended by the track vet for their decision on behalf of the horse.

So the race goes on. Many in the US who know nothing about horses or racing are still captured and elevated by the striking series of events. The image of an upstart winning the rose blanket will be at the backs of their minds as they struggle to find a way to make a new path through this economic downturn. Just as there are signs in the banking industry and the retail sector that Americans are changing their ways, the 2009 Kentucky Derby will be a sign of hope for the country and for a struggling industry.

Mine That Bird, rock on!

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