Sunday, May 4, 2008


Eight Belles running, Eight Belles down. From the NY Times.

I didn't actually mean to watch the Kentucky Derby. I was making chocolate cupcakes, and I happened to step into the living room with sticky spatula in hand about a minute into the race. So I saw Big Brown surge way ahead, and Eight Belles gamely holding on behind him, the only one who could even close to keep up, and the victory, and the absurdly privileged son being obscured by his mother's giant flapping Derby hat as she hugged him. I felt both revolted and intrigued by the commentators' reiterations of how amazing it was that this was li'l Jacob's first Derby he'd ever attended and his braggart dad's horse won the race. In my head this instantly became the genesis of a novel that would inevitably tangle into a patrilineal mess of resentment, inadequacy, and failed entitlement.

Then the camera cut to a distant shot of Eight Belles, an ominous silhouette, lying on her side. A dog or cat sprawled on his side looks the like the ultimate relaxed. But a horse on her side looks terribly wrong, a mountain tipped, a ship blown over.
“She went out in glory,” [her trainer] said, his voice breaking. “She went out a champion to us.”
Broken-legged, lying in the dirt, with no comprehension of what had happened to her, no understanding of sacrifice, and no cause to have died for, by a needle injection at that, in front of an audience of drunk people in foolish hats--that's glory? And for some reason it only makes it sadder, to me at least, that it was the filly who broke her legs. The only girl in the game. Only 38 have entered the Derby before her, and only three have ever won.

Her story's like that of Ruffian, an all-time great. Ruffian also died at age three of a broken leg, following a match race (which they no longer do, as a result) with a colt called Foolish Pleasure. Her injury was particularly horrific; by the time they managed to halt her, her leg was so broken her foot was flopping like a half-on shoe. They did splint her and attempt to save her, but when she awoke from the anesthesia she thrashed so violently in her padded stall that she smashed her elbow, dislodged her cast, and sabotaged all the efforts of the surgery meant to save her. Down she went.

I used to be a total horse girl, one of those, with like sixty Breyer model horses that I bought with my babysitting money, each with its own name, kept in immaculate condition. I built makeshift stables out of scrap wood in the garage using a bandsaw, hammer, and nails, and I sewed little horse blankets that snapped around their chests. I had a pair of red cowboy boots I wore everywhere. My mom unearthed a list of life goals I made when I was eleven; one of them, a hybrid of my peaking horse-fanaticism and nascent feminism, was to raise the first Triple Crown-winning filly. (With many underlines and exclamation points.)

But then on a family trip to Winnipeg I actually saw my first real horse race at Assiniboia Downs. It was not at all what I thought. This was no Black Stallion or Seabiscuit romance. This was not down in the barn with the sweet smell of hay and horse sweat, the grooms currying hides to a sheen and prying dirt clods out of hooves, holding out a carrot to feel the huff of warm breath and velvet lips searching my open palm. It was concrete bleachers and betting windows and feverish-eyed, leisurewear-ed people milling around studying the fine print in booklets and chugging alcohol. It dawned on me that this business was not about the horses.

No matter how marvelous the animals or how seductive the faux aristocracy around it, there's ultimately no love, majesty, gallantry, or heroism in horse racing. Inbred, shot up with painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and steroids that keep them going at any cost, they're just bred and flogged toward the money.


sebastianhope said...

The cupcakes you were making sound awful. Yuck!

njg said...

beautifully said, neighbor!