Tracks That Burn

Illustrations by Charlie Mostow

"Pray continually."
Morning sermon, Churchill Downs

I was driven to the entrance of Churchill Downs by a pipemaker from Germany, who specialized in making the components of organs. I can't recall how he wound up in Kentucky, but I remember it was by way of Northeastern Ohio, after he'd been persecuted in his native country. The man didn't say much, but he did say that he didn't give a lick about horse racing. I took it as a sign that, even in Louisville, the Kentucky Derby isn't everything. But God help the poor bastards who listen to omens.

I had been sucked back in as the rains of last year battered on: horses continued to die, and trainers continued to drug them with impunity. 

But something is seductive about this sport, even though I know that it is evil. I hoped for the human element as much as the horse, to redeem itself, to prove itself worthy of this beautiful world.

* * * * *

"Very, very excited about the whole thing," said trainer Shug McGaughey. "We got a good post, everything's going well, and we got the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. I mean my God."

My admiration of Shug McGaughey began as soon as my German friend dropped me off and I watched a horse get a bath outside Barn No. 43. There was something about the atmosphere around this horse. I could not put my finger on what attracted me. I considered that it was the character of the horse, and then, in disapproval of his bath, he kicked a bucket of water in my face. I considered that it was not the character of the horse. 

Slowly, I remembered last year. My favorite horse was named Union Rags, and as it was my first Kentucky Derby, he would always be my favorite. To some extent, our love of horses is the stories we make of them, and this was certainly the case with Union Rags: his trainer, Michael Matz, was re-emerging on the scene after his Barbaro, perhaps the greatest horse in a generation, was fatally injured in the 2006 Preakness. I remembered standing with Union Rags in the clover, and trying to see in his eyes if he would win. 

The horse that reminded me most of Union Rags in this bunch was Orb. And most of it had to do with McGaughey. He was well-known for his patient approach, bringing only one other horse to the Derby since a close second in 1989. His wife, Alison, wore a hat that said "Old School" on one side and "Shug Style" on the other. McGaughey's setup, once the standard, was now unique in racing: he worked for one stable, that of the wealthy Ogden Mills Phipps, whose family had been breeding horses for generations. 

"My outfit is a throwback to what the old days were," Shug told me beneath chirping birds the next dawn. "And there will never be that day again."

I asked if he ever worried about what other trainers might be doing to their horses. 

"Sure I do," he said. "I think that there is a problem in that respect. That's why I think that we need to clamp down on that. We need to make examples out of people when they do get caught."

That week, Goldencents sat in his barn as his trainer, Doug O'Neill, suspended shortly after winning last year's race for repeated substance violations, stood for photo opportunities with current owner Rick Pitino. Vyjack rested in the presence of security cameras, installed by the racing board as a condition for the licensing of trainer Rudy Rodriguez, whose horses had been found with medication levels so high that he could only contend it was sabotage. At the entrance to the track, Bob Baffert, winner of three Kentucky Derbies, chatted with friends. Seven of his horses had died in the previous seventeen months, suddenly, of mysterious and unknown causes.

McGaughey, to me, represented everything good about the sport. And, just like Union Rags, I was sure that he would lose. 

* * * * *

It's a sad thing to expect the gods to chuckle, but that's how it was after spending a year in a sport that I love and I fear. Keeneland and Saratoga present the impression that nothing could ever be wrong—there is never a blade of grass out of place, or a country memory lost. But there is wrong, there is clear and damning wrong, everywhere.

Horses and humans have an ancient relationship. Today's framework, however, is corrupted. Those who've come to the sport as lovers and laborers have been betrayed by those who see the horse as an instrument. To them, it is acceptable that thousands of horses are born every year who will eventually be killed.

Greatness is achieved through chance, courage a measure of unlikelihood. But with the legions of horses "expertly" bred today, veritable clone armies, when a race horse wins, he is simply the most inexorable of a great inexorability.

Breeding is the centerpiece of horse racing's inverted moral calculus. 25,000 thoroughbreds are foaled each year, the ones making it to auction selling for an average of $53,000. They are lottery tickets, a chance at status and strategy. At the highest level, the goal for each of them is the Kentucky Derby. On the way, many are drugged: there are legal "therapeutics"—diuretics to make them faster and painkillers to make them run past soreness—and there are the illicit potions, the scope of which can be grasped by imagining the vastness of abuse in baseball and applying it to a sport in which competitors cannot refuse and do not talk. The horses that perform well attract breeding interest. For the ones that don't, upon the lavish sport descends a sudden frugality. 

Some end their lives being ridden into the ground at Ruidoso Downs or Los Alamitos, descending the depths of claiming racing as ascending grades of lowlife take their bridles. Some, whether because they are no longer able to run or because the sellers' fee is simply higher, are sold to the slaughterhouse. Over 100,000 American horses are killed each year for meat, as many as ten percent of them thoroughbreds. This might seem an exaggeration if one did not know of Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby, who turned up some years later in Japan, as pet food. 

Owners who one day speak of their love for the beautiful horse will, the next, declare themselves incapable of helping a former champion who is sickly and racing for pennies.

It's a terrible thing to expect the worst, even as I pray for the best, but I think I could be forgiven.

* * * * *

There is a shirt in my trunk that hasn't been washed—not, at least, since Orb splashed it with water. You see, the human mind is a forgiving thing, a desperate thing, and it will not turn down an opportunity to believe. Orb won the Derby, and not only did he win it, he mastered it—inhaling the remainder of the pack down the stretch. My penance for doubt was myth.

So, two weeks after the Derby, I was handed a racing form by a ghost with a beret outside Pimlico Race Course. The building's anxious decay, a facade of panicked windows unchanged since the '60s, necessitated his presence, welcoming me to the Triple Crown's second, brittle leg.

Throughout the week, McGaughey was effusive in his praise for Orb. "Breathtaking" was how he described the colt's post-Derby workout, an unlikely word for the reserved trainer. Who were we to question the plans of the spirits, when they always seem that they will soon be so kind? 

The horses that contested the Preakness were looked at as nags—owners in the race just to say they were. The main competitors from the Derby—Golden Soul, Normandy Invasion, Revolutionary—were bypassing the race, and those who remained were either already beaten or new entries of questionable repute. Reporters and enthusiasts began to see the stars aligning for another Triple Crown, a new era for the sport, an excitement that some did not think they would live to see.

But the white picket fence had chips.

* * * * *

"I hear Shug's tight this morning," Stuart Janney, Orb's co-owner, said amongst family the morning before the race on the rail of a quiet track.

Shug walked up a few minutes later. "Woke up with anticipation," he told the Janneys.

It was a feeling that bore listening to.

The first sign of trouble had come at the draw. Nobody admitted to caring what post they got but they cared. Orb received post #1, from which only one other horse had won the Preakness since 1961, sending his connections into explanations about how starting gates didn't matter. But immediate reactions do not lie, and when Jenn Patterson, the exercise rider and perhaps closest human confidante of Orb, heard the announcement, she simply shook her head.

The second premonition would come the morning of the race.

"Come on man, you're not supposed to work in there," Shug said to a track employee making noise near the barn shortly after 5:00 a.m.

A few minutes later, McGaughey stomped off toward a trailer.

"I'm gonna fucking kill that motherfucker."

There's a poster at the entrance to the press box at Pimlico: "Race of the Decade" it declares above a photo of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, the classic matchup that marked Shug's last appearance on the Triple Crown trail. He had done everything the right way since, and he'd earned the admiration of the horse racing world in the process. But even the staunchest Samaritans have their limits, and the pressure of the week had caught up with him.

"Do you guys have walkie-talkies?" he demanded of the security guards under the blanket of dawn and surreptition. "Ask what time the track warms up."

Shug took Orb to the track at around 5:30. Orb was spooked slightly by an unloading truck as he walked there. Jenn Patterson jogged him lightly over the oval as Shug stood alone at midstretch, deep within himself.

When the team returned to the barn, apprehensions began to show. 

"Where's he going with him?" Shug asked his staff as a hot walker began guiding Orb into the barn after a bath. "What the fuck?" 

"We don't usually graze on race day, I thought," Jenn Patterson replied.

"Take him to graze!" Shug shouted. 

A dour mood fell over the Orb camp, as Jenn stood sadly with the horse in the grass and assistant Anna Martinovsky faced the latest of Shug's frustrations.

"You're telling me how long I'm gonna walk the horse?" he asked, amidst thrown water pitchers and kicked buckets. "When I ask you a question, answer it!"

And there were no rousing speeches, there was no grand sequence, just waiting.

* * * * *

Poor Enrique, Orb's groom, was devastated when he lost. He seemed nervous to me before the race, wide-eyed where earlier he had been just clumsy, telling me he could not conceive of the $1 million purse. 

Jenn was inconsolable, sitting with her family on a bench near Orb's barn. "Live to fight another day" was the guidance from Jerry Bailey, one of the sport's great riding heroes, who was part of a long line offering well wishes. 

When Shug returned, he faced a much smaller crowd than before. There were a few lonely stragglers waiting for answers, but mostly it was silence.

The change appeared to suit him. He seemed more relaxed, a burden lifted.

Suddenly, everyone was human again—except the horse, who was, again, a horse.

* * * * *

And so I went to New York. I wasn't expecting to find resolution, necessarily, but I was hoping for a happy coda. Some things are not meant to be, but it had been such a long year.

The sport's conflicted graces had left me wondering whether I belonged here. What is the future of a game that does not take care of its own, and tears to tattered ruin the natural bedrocks of its beginnings? There are so many who love horses, and there is so much wealth in their propagation, yet there is greed, and there is numbness. 

At Belmont Park, a place of untold beauty, I found more questions than answers. It's always that way with horses, who cannot tell us near as much as we want to know. 

The story line was this: Orb sought to redeem himself, while Oxbow, his foil at the Preakness, attempted to prove his superiority. Neither happened. The Fates would never be so kind. It was a fitting ending to an imperfect tale, where things do not happen because they are graceful but because they are necessary.  

There was simply the peace that comes with the possibility of renewal. Horse racing carries it like no other sport. Each race has no antecedent, no consequences. Just horses you'll see again and horses that disappear.


Jamie Berk

This is the latest part in a series, Dispatches from the Triple Crown. Read the initial feature, "Whispers in the Shade of Roses," here. For additional columns and vignettes, click here

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