The Final Hurdle

It was late in the afternoon on the next-to-last Monday of the Saratoga meet and I was driving back down the thruway with my wife, who was still quite upset over what had happened four hours ago. “How do you do it?” She wondered this out loud. “How do you love and support a sport where THAT happens?”

We hadn’t really talked about it at the track. We went for a walk around the backyard and got an early drink. But it was a fair and obvious question, even if I wasn’t ready for it. I off-the-cuff’d it best I could, but she was not convinced. “Well, maybe you should write about THAT in your blog”, she offered, as if I took requests, or could make it come out better.

Had it not rained like cats and dogs the previous Wednesday, things might have turned out different. If only. But the Thursday turf races were moved to the main track, and the New York Turf Writers Cup over two-plus miles and one-too-many hurdles was postponed, and subsequently rescheduled to the following Monday. Which turned out to be just one more perfect summer day. I had lucked into two great seats just inside the sixteenth pole, prompting the Missus to join me by making one of her rare excursions to the races. The Turf Writers was the first race. And as the horses came down the stretch for the third and final time, Makari and Jack Doyle were just heads behind the leader and gaining when they fell hard going over the last hurdle, and only Doyle got up. Through my binoculars I could see Doyle look down on his fallen partner and then turn away in despair. Makari was dead from a broken neck.

The shock around the clubhouse was palpable. I said what I thought I should say. What I thought she needed to hear. “Are you OK? I’m so sorry you had to see that.” And, oh, had she seen it. Catherine had her binoculars trained on Makari going over the last jump. I now had mine trained on the inner turf course, where the two sets of fences between us obscured my view, but I could see that the horse was as still as a distant hillside on a calm day. “He’s not moving,” I told her. I saw the attending vet standing over Makari with a needle that would not be necessary. “I don’t think he suffered much. He’s gone.”

She went up the stairs to the bathroom, and came back down after a few long minutes. Later she told me that two other women in the bathroom had been a comfort. “I come with my husband because he loves it,” one of them told her, “but you never get over it. You never get used to it.” We went for that drink, and to watch some horses walk around the paddock. After a while we walked over and said hello to some friends who I figured would be in the backyard outside the Carousel. After that we ventured back to our nice seats and watched some more races, but we left before the feature so we would be back home well before the sun went down.

When shocked I tend to withdraw somewhat. It helps me to process, but I’m sure my wife and others could read this as coldness. But as Makari lay there and I tried to think of soothing things to stay, I could not help but think about the first time I ever witnessed a bad breakdown from up close; at the 1990 Breeders’ Cup at Belmont, when I was also sitting just inside the sixteenth pole.

But this one was completely different from Go for Wand and pretty much every other racetrack catastrophe I’d ever witnessed. That first flash of disaster is almost always shadowed by that eternity – usually no more than a couple of minutes – when the horse is suffering and the needle can’t arrive fast enough. As I saw Doyle turn away, and then the vet realize that there was nothing to be done, I felt an odd peacefulness, as if some dreadful but necessary part of the process had been surgically removed in real time. I felt the presence of Mercy.

Which may help to explain why my impromptu “how can I love it?” speech in the car had fallen flat. While being sad for the horse and his connections, I had come right up to the brink of telling my wife that I looked upon Makari’s as a noble racing death, before chickening out. But, having thought it over, I’ll say it now. Sudden and sad and way too soon, yes. But it was also heroic and pure, in a way that many racetrack deaths are not.

She had asked if we should blame it on the jumps. And while of course it was the final hurdle that felled him, an admirer might say it was Makari’s courage and will to win that had left him vulnerable his third time down the lane. You don’t win 7 of 11 lifetime jumping and become a Grade One winner over Saratoga’s fences by being overly concerned with your own personal safety. Maybe you can help convince a horse that hurdling is a good idea, but you can’t insist upon it. It’s doubtful Makari had needed much convincing.

Besides, I told my beloved, none of them is safe from disaster. Racehorses will break down; often catastrophically. This is true even in the places that do much more to prevent it than is typically done here. The shame of American racing, I told her, is not the first “one per thousand starts” fatalities that claim the inevitable and unlucky ones all around the world; but the second set of “one per thousand starts” fatalities that seems to be uniquely American.

And this was where I lost her. Even if we washed all the drugs out of racing’s system, I couldn’t tell her that this wouldn’t happen. Even if every owner were as rich as Paul Mellon, and every trainer as kind on a horse as Julie Krone’s hands, things like this would still happen. So the question remains: How do I, how do we stand this?

We can stand this, I submit, because we love them. We love thoroughbreds so much that we do not care to even imagine a world without them, let alone live in one. You wonder if those who are so certain of their feelings that thoroughbred racing should be banned would feel the same way if they understood that doing so would virtually erase these magnificent but fragile equine hybrids from our landscape. Where would you go in America to see a thoroughbred in full flight, if you could not go to a racetrack?

When I go to NYRA tracks and look out upon the men and women who train and tend to these animals, I don’t see exploitation: I see love. As a tourist who wouldn’t know these horses without saddlecloths and a program, I can’t even imagine the pain that must wash across the backstretch when a great horse like Makari goes down. It is an emotional cost that will eventually be paid and then paid again by anyone who has ever made the mistake of falling in love with a horse.

It remains a perilous world out there. We can’t seem to find a way to keep our brave youth from becoming their generation’s cannon fodder, or keep second-graders safe from gunfire, so what sort of chances does a horse rate? Every time a field of ten lines up there’s about a 50-1 chance that one starter will not survive the race. Even 100-1 is probably too short a price for my wife and many others, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Then when the inevitable happens, we can console ourselves by saying that the poor horse was unlucky, or was very brave and tried too hard. We won’t ever have to say it was because we did not care enough.

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