Posts Tagged ‘horse racing’

Much was made of the brilliant 4 year old filly Zenyatta today as she won the Ladies’ Classic at the Breeders Cup, bringing her undefeated streak to 9 career starts.  The ESPN commentators were falling all over themselves, with comments like, “The Patriots couldn’t do it, Big Brown couldn’t do it, but Zenyatta did!”

Aren’t we forgetting someone?

It really irked me to no end that comparisons were made without any mention of what may be one of the greatest trotters of all time, Deweycheatumnhowe, who was undefeated through his first 17 career starts with a 21-1-1 record in a total 23 starts, has won every major trotting race, has won all three legs of the trotting Triple Crown, most recently won the Kentucky Futurity requiring him to race three heats and win two in one day, and is the ONLY undefeated winner of the Hambletonian, which has been in place since 1926.

Is it just me, or does that sound slightly more impressive than 8 wins?  Not to take anything away from Zenyatta – she is certainly very powerful and her late-closing style of running makes for a thrilling race – but I’d like to see credit given where it’s due.  Harness racing has always been the People’s Sport, not the Sport of Kings, but that doesn’t mean the horses are any less an athlete.  So my congratulations to Zenyatta’s owners, and when she has a few more wins under her belt – like, say, a dozen or so – then I’ll put her up on a level with Dewey.  Until then, she’s just a very good horse.


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Of course the largest font on my author tag cloud in the horse fiction library is Dick Francis, who, as you most likely already know, was a champion steeplechase (or, more properly, National Hunt) jockey before he became an incredibly prolific writer. Having read all of his novels, I thought I had some idea as to what a National Hunt race is like, but it turns out I really didn’t have a clue.

Wiola posted a video of the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup – a race Dick Francis never won but described many times in his novels – and I was totally amazed, watching it, to realize I had never seen a National Hunt race. For some reason, all of the imagery I had absorbed from reading tricked my brain into thinking I had actually watched steeplechasing – but seeing the real thing, it was completely different from what I had imagined.

Given the dramatic action of the race scenes in Dick Francis’ novels, the pace seemed slower and the fences looked lower than I expected. I do realize that if I was riding the course – a completely and unequivocally absurd thought – it would most certainly be the other way around (and since Dick Francis writes in the first person that makes sense), but having adjusted my sense of speed from flat racing to harness racing, I still wasn’t prepared for the initial circuit’s lope towards the fences.

In reality, of course, the fences are at least 4½ ft. high and it’s only the talent of horse and rider that makes them seem smaller, but perhaps because of the camera angle they didn’t seem to loom above the horses as I thought they would. I know it’s an optical illusion, but somehow Grand Prix showjumping has ruined my eye for what constitutes a tall fence.

The course itself seems to go on forever – 3 miles 2½ furlongs – and the fitness and stamina of the horses blew my mind, particularly with Cheltenham’s famed uphill finish. It makes a flat racing course, even the most strenuous, seem like a sprint. Harness racing horses are jogged for miles daily to increase their wind, but the actual races are only a mile (longer in New Zealand and Australia.) I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into conditioning a ‘chaser.

When the narrator in a Dick Francis novel describes a race, it sounds like the course is full of twists and turns, dark alleys where misbehavior can’t be seen by the stewards and hidden pockets out of sight of the cheering crowd where a bystander could be lurking to string something across the jump to fell horse and rider. It’s a testament to the skill of his writing that the atmosphere of his suspense novels is nothing like the cheerful, endlessly green course of the real race in the clear light of day.

It’s interesting how the mind works. I’ve had memories of things that seemed much larger, or imposing, when I was a child, only to find as an adult that they weren’t intimidating at all. I just never realized that the same dynamic could occur with memories that were, literally, fiction.

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I love TheHorse.com, if only because it gives me such good blogging fodder:

California Adopts Steroid Testing Levels

February 29 2008, Article # 11422

The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) took a major step towards banning supplemental anabolic steroids with the adoption of testing levels for four major substances during its meeting Feb. 28 in Arcadia.

“It’s the first step in regulating anabolic steroids in California horse racing,” said Rick Arthur, DVM, the state’s equine medical director. “This is the most important action the board will take on medications this year.”

Due to their copyright policy, I can’t reprint more than that on this site, but I do feel I can add a few quotes:

Punishment for overages has yet to be finalized. In the meantime, the CHRB intends to send warning letters for any overages.


CHRB chairman Richard Shapiro noted that the timing is right for regulation. “Anybody who reads the news knows this is something obvious,” he said. “We need to move forward. This is something that will help the whole industry very quickly.”

Hmm… really? From working on horses at the track, I can tell you that the ones on steroids – most commonly ‘Equipoise’ (a misnomer if I ever heard one) – are so tense, both muscularly and mentally, that it’s totally unpleasant to be around them. Even the grooms avoid them, and do the minimum to care for these horses. I have seen horses literally grinding their teeth like a methamphetamine addict on a three-day run.

Trainers come up with all kinds of good reasons to give their horses steroids – “She’s too moody to race otherwise”, “He’s not aggressive enough to get out front”, “He’s not fast enough without” etc., etc., but the bottom line is, if you have to drug your horse to win, it’s not the right horse or you are not the right trainer. Performance-enhancing drugs are just that – drugs. Just ask Marion Jones.

And who will be doing research into the long-term effects of use in horses? No one, I presume, since, after all, they’re just horses, who can easily be converted to cash once their winning streak is over. (I’m hoping those who eat chevale aren’t disturbed by the idea of inducing who-knows-what drugs into their system along with a horseburger du jour.)

And those warning letters? Those will really put the fear of God in ’em. Especially since any testosterone level in non-gelded horses will be acceptable. Your man-eating, fire-breathing, totally unmanageable stallion is always like that, right? And gee whiz, he sure races great, especially if you can keep him straight so he doesn’t get distracted by the impulse to beat the crap out of every other horse on the homestretch.

The racing industry is dogged by constantly churning whispers of unfair play on every level. Surely the powers that be can see that the confidence of the gaming public – something that no one can deny has slipped, and slipped badly on every racing day other than the Derby – is imperative to the continued health of the sport. So why the hell is it a “major step” when they announce “testing levels” but don’t actually announce banning the drugs, testing for them, or consequences?

Get with it, guys. If an Olympic medalist can be taken down, what’s the dilemma about a $3000 claimer?

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Yesterday evening I spent at the track, holding racehorses for our chiropractor, Dr. Troy Stevens. Whoever mentioned that tapping on the forehead is a good distraction for farrier work – you were right. Although the horses like our chiropractor, we wouldn’t be calling him if they weren’t in pain, so they are generally a little restless when someone moves in to the spot that’s bothering them. With the steady, soft tapping, both mares lowered their heads until they were practically resting them on my chest, and let Dr. Stevens go to work.

We’ve been very fortunate to have a really excellent chiropractor in our area who is very experienced working with horses. (Dr. Stevens is also my personal chiropractor, and in the last two weeks he has treated my knee so that I am no longer using crutches to walk.) While I have seen the benefits of chiropractic care on pleasure horses, with the racehorses it’s much more obvious, because their performance is measurable. With a combination of massage, photonic laser stimulation of acupuncture points, and chiropractic, we’ve seen horses go from finishing dead last to being in the money week after week. It’s pretty simple, really – if something, such as a rotated pelvis, out-of-adjustment pastern, or compressed vertebrae is causing them pain and/or the inability to stride correctly, they are unable to perform at their innate capability.

One thing’s for certain – the trainers at the track almost without exception fall into an old-school attitude about anything new – training methods, feed, health care, whatever it is, if it’s new, it’s automatically suspect. Prove it, is the general response. I think it says a lot about chiropractic care in general and Dr. Stevens in particular that we have been able to develop a steady clientele for him at the track.

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a horse perform excellently, and knowing you had a hand in it. Being open-minded is a good place to start.

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I am sitting in a wood shack, perhaps 6’x4′ and barely large enough for two people to stand in if they happen to be very good friends, with a portable heater running to chase away the wind that is finding its way between the cracks in the wood. There are three small windows: One out to the parking lot, so I can see anyone approaching and check their racing license, one looking out at the soupy, muddy mess of a racetrack, and one looking into the paddock, which is enclosed on two sides by a high hedge and covered by a massive tent. The tent is ripping in the wind.

Actually, the last few storms have already ripped the tent, which has about 36 florescent light fixtures attached to its ceiling, and the tent is being held together – somewhat optimistically, in my opinion – by tie-downs. There are about 20 horses in the paddock at any given time, along with grooms, trainers, drivers, the state vet, and the farrier. The tent is making me uneasy, and the horses don’t think much of the situation, either. The wind is supposed to pick up as the night goes on. Right now it’s settled at 23 mph, and the horses head straight into it as they come down the homestretch.

It’s also cold, but I can’t complain about that because as I am walking through the grandstand on the way to the coffee stand, one of the monitors is showing a track in Chicago, where they’re racing on packed snow. Coffee in hand, I weave my way through the huddled groups of gamblers, so intent on their tickets they can’t see that I’m walking with a limp. The cold and damp are having a real effect on my knee tonight and it hurts to feel the pressure of the asphalt and concrete under my feet. The track has been scraped to try to dissipate the runoff and slop, leaving a bare, compacted surface that echos the sound of hooves all the way from the backstretch to the grandstand. It’s a hard, hollow, metallic sound and not one you want to hear when your horse is running. No doubt their knees aren’t feeling so hot, either. I wonder if there’s a single working individual, man or beast, on the grounds tonight who actually wants to be here.

The grooms pull the hoods of their raingear tight around their faces as they ready themselves and their horses for the trip across to the backstretch and the work that’s just begun once the race ends. The drivers’ colors are indistinguishable with all the mud, and as they walk off the track, pushing their race bikes to the paddock once the grooms have taken the horses away, they spit mud from their mouths and wipe their faces on their sleeves, revealing skin underneath. I can see my reflection in the glare of the window to the track, my head seemingly floating above the horses as they go by, the wheels of the bikes just a blur.

I reach for my coffee and turn the heater up a notch.

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