In Defense of Horse Racing

With the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby set for Saturday, the writer vouches for a beleaguered sport

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jehad Nga for TIME

Horses race at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.

Sportswriters, op-ed scribes and cultural critics have been drafting horse racing‘s obituary for years. Attendance at U.S. tracks has plummeted to distressing, all-time lows. Drug problems — in both humans and horses — plague the industry. Aside from one race in Kentucky on the first Saturday in May, the sport — once among the two or three most popular in the land — has largely fallen completely off the radar of most Americans.

And is it any wonder? Anyone who has spent any time around horse racing tracks knows that, in fundamental ways, the sport is indefensible. Jockeys, remarkable athletes all, punish their own bodies in order to “make weight” so they can push beautiful animals to the limit — and beyond the limit — of endurance. Horses that “break down” in midrace are frequently euthanized. Opportunities for corruption, for cheating, for scandal are legion. Trainers (not all, but not very few, either) illegally dope horses, while the ubiquity of what might be termed legal doping — e.g., Furosemide, a preventative for “exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging” during races — is something of a tacit acknowledgment that racing is not all that great for the animals.

If their lungs routinely bleed when they race, why are they forced to run?

Granted, America’s marquee racing events — the Travers Stakes, the Breeders Cup, the Kentucky Derby — draw tens and even hundreds of thousands to the track and, in the case of the Derby, millions more to their TV sets for most people’s single annual encounter with the Sport of Kings. The crowds, the drama, the celebrities in their funky hats and (of course) the money won and lost in “the most exciting two minutes in sports” — all the elements combine to paint a picture of a thrilling, thriving enterprise.

(MORE: Twilight At The Track)

But visit a track — even one of the great venues, like Del Mar, Keeneland, Belmont or Arlington Park — on a gray weekday, when a few thousand glum souls are losing their grocery money on claiming races; when the “stoopers” (those ghostly, perpetually bent-at-the-waist figures scanning the ground for inadvertently discarded winning tickets) are out in force; when the largely empty grandstands ring with the enraged yowls of men and women whose horses finished out of the money … at those times, the sport doesn’t feel glamorous, or thrilling. It feels cheap, desperate and, at its worst, thoroughly degrading.

In the face of these realities, why do racing fans remain so passionate? Why are so many writers and painters, for example, drawn to the spectacle of race day — and even more so to the quieter moments around the track and the backstretch, before the races start and long after they’ve been lost and won?

Why, in the end, care about racing at all?

One argument in favor of racing, of course, involves pure economics. The industry directly employs hundreds of thousands of people — trainers, jockeys, hotwalkers, groomers, betting-parlor clerks, track workers — and means money for farmers (feed and hay), sawmill operators, local rail lines (e.g., the LIRR in New York) and countless other ancillary workers. More than a few states, meanwhile, see considerable millions in annual tax revenue from racing — dollars that would be hard to replace in cash-strapped times if the sport were to vanish.

But beyond the “dollars and sense” numbers game, there remains another, more compelling (if less concrete) defense of the sport: namely, its poetry. Not written poetry, or doggerel comparing every allowance-race winner to Shadowfax or Bucephalus, but the aesthetic intensity one experiences in the presence of the inexplicable.

Granted, this sort of thing happens rarely in horse racing — as it happens rarely in any aspect of life — but in those memorable moments when racing’s poetry presents itself, all the sordid, unsavory, questionable elements of the sport fade to nothing, and one is sometimes left with a kind of adrenalized wonder, almost a wild joy — or, on occasion, a sudden, heart-stopping disbelief — in light of what unfolded before one’s eyes.

Some memories of just such moments: Coronado’s Quest edging both Victory Gallop and Raffie’s Majesty by the merest tip of a nose in the 1998 Travers, the full-throated roar rolling toward the horses and riders from 40,000 galvanized fans so loud and sustained it’s almost frightening. The troubled, supremely talented jockey Chris Antley saving Charismatic’s life at the 131st Belmont Stakes, reining in and leaping from the horse in the final furlong — 600 feet from victory, from the Triple Crown, from racing immortality — gently cradling the great horse’s injured left foreleg, broken in two places, leaning against the creature, calming it, until help can arrive. Artax, the indomitable sprinter, demolishing a course record in the Carter Handicap and seeming to literally fly — his hooves a sustained blur — across the finish line.

At those times, one can believe for a moment that nothing in life is more natural, or more hair-raisingly lovely, than a rider, silks fluttering, poised atop a horse, stretching for the wire. There is something ancient, something near-mythical about the scenario — human and horse, in perfect sync — that the privilege of witnessing that melding of skill, courage and speed feels like a gift.

Years ago, in a classic episode titled “Saddlesore Galactica,” The Simpsons both pilloried and paid tribute to horse racing. In one scene, the announcer (voiced by the great Trevor Denman, a race caller at some of the West Coast’s fabled tracks) relayed the scene in breathless, staccato patter: It’s Chock Full O’ Drugs followed closely by Stalker, with Old Levis fading fast!”

True racing fans hearing that line surely laugh as loudly as anyone else, sensing deep in Denman’s comical call a fond acknowledgement of a flawed, improbable, struggling and, every now and then, still glorious pastime.

(MORE: The End of Horse Racing: Photographs by Jehad Nga)