Another Kentucky Derby, another breakdown. Churchill Downs officials did what frequently happens when a horse is injured this badly in front of a worldwide television audience — drew trucks in a tight circle around her and euthanized her out of sight. Not that NBC seemed inclined to show it in the first place, as Sally Jenkins notes.
I love horses, I love (most) horsemen, but people? When the most famous horse race in the world features two hideous life-ending accidents in three years, the world is telling you something, and it’s not, “You’re having a run of bad luck.”
Some years ago the Atlantic ran a fascinating story about the American Kennel Club, and how it’s ruining dogs. You may disagree with its basic premise, but it raised some fascinating questions about what, exactly, constitutes a breed. The example they used was Dalmatians, which have a chronic, genetic stomach defect. It’s on a recessive gene, and breeders have found that if you breed a Dalmatian out to an English spaniel (maybe a setter; memory’s not what it used to be), which looks like a long-haired version of a Dalmatian, the defect disappears. Breed those pups back to Dalmatians, and within two or three generations you have puppies that look and behave exactly like any other Dalmatian, but are free of the genetic defect. Alas, the AKC considers these dogs mongrels. Why? Because they’re not purebred.
Thoroughbreds (which is an actual breed, not a designation like “purebred”) are among the most inbred horses in the world. Every single one goes back to three foundation sires, and nearly all the ones racing today can call Native Dancer some form of great-great grandpappy. Students of racing have noted the bloodline seems to be at a plateau — records haven’t moved much since Secretariat’s day 35 years ago, and that was before a lot of technical and pharmaceutical advances Secretariat’s team couldn’t take advantage of. Big Brown, the winner yesterday, has a history of hoof bruising, and runs in glue-on shoes over silicone pads. Think what you’d rather run a bruising mile-and-a-quarter in — wingtips or Nikes. That’s the comparison.
No one has written better about racing in recent years than Jane Smiley, novelist and horsewoman, who has campaigned several racehorses and rides herself. Her post on the NYT blog yesterday was instructive; she thinks the problem is in footing, not breeding, and notes the sharp drop in catastrophic accidents in California, once that state gave up dirt for a synthetic surface called polytrack. Europe has far few injuries than the U.S. does as well, and runs on grass. Jenkins puts the blame on inbreeding and overtraining. They’re both probably at least partly right; it’s a complicated problem without easy answers. Just for the hell of it, though, I’d like to see some discussion of breeding a little more sturdiness into the line. The breed’s been around for 300 years or so — can we add one more ingredient to the stew? Maybe a dash of Dutch Warmblood, something with a bit more iron in the leg. Partisans will tell you a horse so bred wouldn’t be a thoroughbred, and if you’re going to split hairs, I guess it wouldn’t be. But then, maybe the next discussion might be to open up racing to non-thoroughbreds. Why not? If thoroughbreds are superior, they’ll win all the races, and maybe the ones bred for a little extra bone heft will retain their speed and lose the glass ankles. This is a speed competition, not a dog show.
Otherwise, if this happens again in another year or two or three, well — it’s going to be a major mellow-harsher. Whenever it does, there’s a lot of mournful talk about how much these horses “love” their job, and how they wouldn’t be happy if they couldn’t race, etc. It’s anthropomorphic, of course; horses, all horses, do their jobs because it’s in their nature to cooperate, and do what’s asked of them. I never watched a 900-pound horse carry a 90-pound kid around a course of fences without marveling that he — the horse — allows it at all. They’re pleasers by nature, and we project our dreams of glory onto them, not the other way around. People watch the Kentucky Derby for the beauty of the animals, the loveliness of the spectacle, “My Old Kentucky Home.” They want the taste of bourbon in their mouths. Not blood.
Newcomer to the blogroll: Sweet Juniper, Detroiter, responsible for the infamous Detroit Public Schools book depository photos seen everywhere on the ‘nets these past few months. An urban life/parenting blogger with a gifted pen and an equally gifted eye. The graffiti pictures at Dequindre Cut are especially recommended. If you have a little time, read his explainer on how the books got that way.
A funny read from the WashPost, which asks the question, right there in the subhed: How much about your teenage transgressions should you tell your kids? The lede:
SOME MONTHS BACK, I was invited to a party with 20 or so other mothers. It was a wine-and-cheese affair, ladies only: The hostess had evacuated her husband and kids to the mall. Gathered around her dining room
table, we talked about our children, and then a few of the women began reminiscing about their own youths, comparing the transgressions they’d committed in their teens and 20s and debating whose were the most egregious.
“I win, I win!” one mother exclaimed. “I was a stripper!”
Can’t beat that, girls.
If you haven’t seen them yet, scroll down for Brian Stouder’s pix of Barack Obama’s visit to the Fort yesterday. Of course I missed it. It’s my curse.
However, a lovely day is in progress right outside. Time to go exploring with the Flip.