I’m pretty sure every girl goes through a “horse phase” at one point or another. Maybe it’s because we’re peddled Marguerite Henry, C.W. Anderson, and Walter Farley books early on in our youth. Maybe it’s just because horses are pretty. Whatever the reason, I and all my friends played with Breyer horses, drew pictures of horses, and ran around the school playground pretending were were jockeys.
Watching the Triple Crown races with my mom was a large part of my “horse phase.” She told me stories about picking her favorite horse with her sisters during the post parade during her childhood, and she and I did the same together.
Admittedly, after 20 years of watching a Triple Crown drought I got a little jaded toward this tradition. I still enjoyed watching, I still picked a favorite, but my inexperienced heart had been broken too many times by spoiler horses to expect anything of greatness. By the time American Pharoah rolled around, I was barely paying attention.
This year’s Triple Crown brought back the excitement for me, and it was historic all around. It was the 150th anniversary of the Triple Crown races. Justify became the 2nd horse in history to be undefeated before his Triple Crown win. Bob Baffert became the 2nd trainer in history to have two Triple Crown winning horses. Mike Smith became the oldest jockey to ever win the Triple Crown. Everything about the past five weeks has been magical.
But horse racing is not a glamorous, magical sport. “Derby Day” puts on a facade of fancy hats and mint juleps, but the realities of racing don’t look like a holiday tea.
Jockeys notoriously struggle with their weight and health, many turning to behaviors consistent with eating disorders. Some tracks have looked to remedy this by raising their weight limits to a whopping 127 pounds.
Such a strenuous task to maintain a goal weight should be well paid, but jockeys are paid race-to-race. While Triple Crown races like the Kentucky Derby pay several hundred dollars, smaller races pay an average of $30 just to ride, and you don’t get a cut of the prize money unless you finish near the top.
Who would take a job like that? Immigrants. Nearly 70 percent of Triple Crown jockeys in recent years have been Hispanic; this year, 4 of the 6 jockeys in this year’s Belmont were Latino. Some of this has to do with the prominence of “jockey schools” in countries like Panama, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Venezuela, but like many jobs that underpay and overwork, people born in the U.S. aren’t as likely to accept them.
Ironically, there is only one Spanish-speaking race narrator in the country.
Abuse and Injury
While the majority of horse owners and trainers are responsible and nurturing toward their animals, a subset has been accused of drugging their horses and forcing them to run when they’re injured. This has improved over the years, but when it happens the “clean” participants tend to turn a blind eye. Horse racing is very much a “if I can’t see it it’s not happening” sport.
Much more astute attention to injury has been paid since Barbaro stumbled and broke his leg in the Belmont in 2006, a devastating injury that ultimately led to his death. We almost saw a repeat of that tragedy in 2008; Big Brown lost his chance at a Triple Crown victory when his shoe came loose during the race.
There have been more than 10 years of debates as to whether some horse injuries could be avoided with artificial dirt tracks. Some research proves them to be safer, some speculates it simply changes the types of injuries horses get.
Luckily, steps are being taken to address both injury and drug abuse in the industry. An Equine Injury Database, created by the Jockey Club, compiles information on racetrack history to detect patterns and risk factors. A proposal was introduced in 2012 to limit the medications that can be legally used in horses.
It’s all progress, but it has a long way to go.
Horse racing is, and has always been, a gambling sport. Like most gambling sports, it is one for the wealthy and the privileged. The wealthy and the privileged are predisposed to greed. Greedy people, well. I don’t think I have to fill in the blanks too much.
I’m glad I know about the ugly side of racing. I think we should all take the time to be educated about the things we love and the problems that, inevitably, go along with them. But knowing what I know, I can’t help but feel a little irresponsible to still watch in wonder. Being swept away by the magic and might of an incredible horse race might be a little wrong.
Maybe horse racing is a sport for idealists. It’s for people who still believe in the underdog, who still believe a jockey can rise up from nothing, who still believe their favorite horse will defy the odds and win the Triple Crown. It’s for the longing of feeling like a kid running around with a stick between your legs trying to out-race your friend on a make-believe track.
There are so few things to feel idealistic about these days. Perhaps horse racing can remain one of them.