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My Last Derby

Just a few days ago, I said in passing to Matt that one day we should find a connection, spend a ton of cash, and buy tickets to the Derby. I’m from here, after all, so it seems like a reasonable thing to do one day.

Or not. I’m pretty sure I’ve just watched my last thoroughbred race-Derby or not, televised or live. It’s a brutal sport, and I’m done. About 30 minutes ago, Eight Belles, the filly who finished second, broke both ankles when she crossed the wire and had to be put down on the track. And so came the painful end to a magnificent and sensitive creature.

Two years ago, Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro pulled up in the Preakness, shattered a leg, and was put down after several months and several surgeries. And so went another painful end to another magnificent and sensitive creature.

The thing is, my love of thoroughbreds and enjoyment of the race was a bit of willful ignorance on my part, and I can’t help but feel that my bluff has been called. I know the physiology of thoroughbreds makes them extremely fragile. I know at three they are too young to be run the way they are. I know they run their races too close together. I know many are run too often when they are unwell and suffer tremendously. I know a dirt track is dangerous. I knew all of this, yet I continued to watch the Derby as though it were somehow exempt from this reality. Like I said: willful ignorance and a chance to fit in among my fellow Kentuckians for at least a few minutes every year. That and the fact that I find these animals a beauty to behold. I rarely bet or follow the odds; I just like to admire these horses up close.

Before the race today, I stood Simon up in front of an ottoman and had him watch. I also said out loud, “I don’t care who wins, I just hope everyone is OK at the end.” Thank goodness Simon didn’t understand what he saw. I, on the other hand, knew exactly what was on the screen before me, and no amount of pretty dresses, elaborate hats, or trumpet calls could cloak it.

The thing is, by now I should be an expert at not fitting in-I don’t expect that throwing one more oddity into the mix will matter that much. And hey, if the day ever comes that they run Clydesdales on fake turf for the Derby, I’ll be right back.

[Coda, May 4: I just read Jane Smiley in the Times. She’s a big thoroughbred fan and an ambivalent racing fan. She says Unbridleds (Unbridled was Eight Belles Grand Sire) are notoriously fearless and therefore unsound, and she thinks Eight Belles probably hurt herself trying to beat a stronger horse. She just would not give up no matter what. Maybe. Or it could be that these horses are, in one expert’s words, “genetic mistakes.” Regardless, she also pointed out that European horses run longer races, only sprint at the end, do so when they are older, and race on polytrack. Their “breakdown rate”–and how convenient a euphemism there to not have to say “death rate” is significantly lower.  Heck, just installing polytrack cut the rate down by as much as 80% in Southern California.

You hear that Churchill Downs? You can save 75%-80% of these glorious animals if you ditch tradition and install polytrack. Ditch the dirt already.]

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