THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?

In the Dallas Cowboys game against the New York Giants on October 11, 2020, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle injury in which his bone protruded through his skin.  Bill Barnwell of ESPN wrote: “If you were watching the play, you are not going to forget what you saw for a long time.  If you didn’t see the play, consider yourself lucky.”  Tears running down Prescott’s face as he was carted off the field are seared into my memory.

The Prescott injury is the most recent in a long history of horrific physical and mental maladies incurred by football players.  The National Football League has acknowledged the brain trauma that its violent sport can cause and has instituted stricter rules and procedures to protect players.  Moreover, the most lucrative professional league in the United States, by far, must be concerned that parents of boys are increasingly discouraging them from participating in football. 

Had a racehorse incurred the same kind of ankle injury that the All-Pro Prescott did, the horse would surely have been euthanized.  Horses cannot be convinced to cooperate in their own recovery and rehabilitation. In the words of the 1969 movie, “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

When a serious breakdown occurs in a high-profile race like the Kentucky Derby, the outcry to outlaw horse racing is swift, unrelenting, and emotionally charged.  The sad breakdown requiring euthanasia of Eight Belles immediately after the finish of the 2008 Derby is an unforgettable case in point.

Going back to the early 20th century, there have been pleas and attempts to ban football.  President Theodore Roosevelt even threatened to abolish the sport for its “brutality and foul play.”  Twenty-five players died from football injuries in 1903 and another 18 in 1905.  However, a strong movement to abolish organized football has never gained much steam.

By contrast, some prominent animal-rights groups and zealous individuals habitually work to stop horse racing, employing hyperbole as well as breakdown statistics to persuade people to their point of view.  They proffer that, unlike human athletes, racehorses don’t have a choice. The radical extension of this perspective is that animals should not be used by humans for any purpose.

The degree of risk to participants in football and horse racing can be mitigated but cannot be reduced to zero.  Both are inherently dangerous.  A sport, however, can endure a heart-rending Dak Prescott or Eight Belles incident, as long as the larger society does not see the sport, through its actions or lack thereof, as having a callous disregard for its athletes, both while they are competing and afterwards in retirement.

What the American racing enterprise must do to have a sustainable future is to stay in step with modern-day sensibilities, in particular pertaining to humane treatment for its human and equine athletes, just as the NFL has done with concussion protocols and penalizing late hits to the quarterback, helmet-to-helmet targeting, and blindside blocking.  Fortunately, significant progress is being made in this respect, such as the likely passage into law of the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act, whip-usage limitations, advancements in track surfaces, and improved aftercare for racehorses. Some measures are controversial in racing circles, but there is no choice except to move forward if horse racing is to have lots of tomorrows.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business

THE 2020 PREAKNESS IS AN INSPIRING UNDERDOG STORY FOR MULTIPLE REASONS

At the 2018 Keeneland September yearling sale, the average selling price was just over $128,000.  The then-unnamed Swiss Skydiver sold for $35,000, or 27% of the average.  Fast forward to October 2020 at Pimlico Race Course.  The largely overlooked filly at the Keeneland sale became the sixth filly in history to win the Preakness Stakes.  She beat 10 colts in the process, including the 2020 Kentucky Derby winner Authentic. Thousand Words, who was purchased for $1 million at the 2018 Keeneland yearling sale, trailed far behind Swiss Skydiver in eighth place.

The underdog story gets even better.  Robby Albarado, Swiss Skydiver’s jockey, got the mount because her regular jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, elected to ride at Keeneland and Mike Smith then also turned down the mount.  In fact, Albarado reportedly was told by Kenny McPeek, Swiss Skydiver’s trainer, to be on stand-by in case Smith said no to his offer.  Albarado was like the lucky guy who got to escort a Cinderella to the high school prom only after supposedly cooler choices for escorts were too busy.

Then there is Swiss Skydiver’s purportedly unfashionable family connections.  Her sire, Daredevil, was held in such low esteem by American breeders that he was exported to stand at stud at the Jockey Club of Turkey Stud Farm for a fee of “private treaty.”  Daredevil is also the sire of Shedaresthedevil, the filly who beat her half sister Swiss Skydiver in the prestigious Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs in September.  Shedaresthedevil received a bid of $20,000 at the 2018 Keeneland September yearling sale, which was refused by her consignor. 

Hope springs eternal in horse racing…and with good reason.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business

A TALE OF A HOF HORSE, HIS HOF TRAINER, AND A MARIJUANA-SELLING GROOM

Horse racing has a long history, with enduring traditions and customs and interesting anecdotes about the often-eccentric characters who have been part of the sport. This week’s Horse Racing Business brings you one such anecdote about Hall of Fame Trainer Charlie Whittingham, Hall of Fame horse Ack Ack, and the horse’s groom Jim (not his actual name).

The narrative comes from Bill Hirsch, a former trainer and the son and grandson of Hall of Fame trainers, William “Buddy” Hirsch and Max Hirsch.  The Hirsch and Whittingham families were close friends.

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“I want to tell you a true story about the great Ack Ack in 1971.  When Churchill Downs ran the Ack Ack Stakes [on September 26, 2020], it made me think of this story.  

Charlie Whittingham had Ack Ack and was getting him ready to run in the Santa Anita Handicap.  He was the odds-on favorite with Bill Shoemaker riding.  His groom was a likable fellow named Jim.   He was Charlie’s best groom and rubbed his best horses.  Jim lived in a tack room at the end of Charlie’s barn about four stalls away from Ack Ack’s stall.  

Jim dealt in marijuana on the backstretch and kept his stash in his tack room.  Many people knew this and some would break into his room and steal.   

Ack Ack was a real mean horse and very powerful.  Whittingham’s crew had to put up a yoke screen in front of his stall because he would try to savage people as they walked by or came to visit him. They also couldn’t hang a hay rack in the front of his stall because of this danger to people. So they put his hay in a chain hay rack in one of the back corners of his stall.  Jim thought to hide his pot stash in the very back of the chain hay rack wrapped in plastic and paper bags.  No one would dare get into Ack Ack’s stall even if they knew the pot stash was there.  

On the night before The Big Cap something stirred up Ack Ack and he was on a rampage in his stall.  Jim could hear the goings on and went out to try and calm him down and was somewhat successful.  The next morning Jim got up and went to work and first checked on Ack Ack.  After all, it was Big Cap day and Ack Ack was the heavy favorite. Jim immediately noticed that during Ack Ack’s rampage the night before he had ripped the chain rack out from the wall and had gotten into the pot stash and tore into it and ate a lot of the pot.

Surely, Charlie would have scratched Ack Ack if he had known what transpired, thinking Ack Ack would test positive for the pot and get disqualified and get Charlie fined or ruled off or both. After fretting about his decision all morning, Jim decided not to tell Charlie. Then, later that afternoon, Ack Ack went out and won The Big Cap, setting a track record for the 1 ¼ mile distance. 

I was at the barn that morning walking hots for my father and other trainers trying to earn some money to bet with on that Saturday.  I walked up to Charlie’s barn that morning to wish the crew and specifically Jim good luck.  Then Jim told me what had happened.  He didn’t know what to do.  He wondered, ‘Should I tell Charlie that Ack Ack ate some pot or not?’

After the race, Jim was a nervous wreck as he walked Ack Ack to the test barn.  The rest is history as Ack Ack did not test positive for any prohibited substances.  

About 30 years later during a night drinking with Charlie in New York, I told him what had happened.  He shrugged his shoulders and exclaimed, ‘He would have won and set the track record without that shit!’

Until now, not many people knew this story. 

In 1971, Ack Ack was named champion sprinter and Horse of the Year.  In 1975, he was enshrined into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.”

Horse Racing Business 2020