On February 18th, I’ll take my words (and hopefully some wit) into the arenae of virtual and voice: Thursday will mark the debut of “View from a Broad,” a racing radio talk show hosted by, well, me. (www.blogtalkradio.com/thoroughbredwriter ). I suspect that at least part of every show will feature me mouthing off about something that’s stuck in my craw that week. What good is it to have a radio show if I just “think happy thoughts”? No one would listen, and even I’d be bored.
I’ll give you a sneak peek, here and now, on Mairzy Doats at Saratoga.com–here’s what’s got my goat this week. Trust me, I will discuss this on the 18th, I’m certain that my goat will still be gotten after another six days roll by. It may not seem to be such a Big Deal to you on the surface, but the implications are tremendous. Please read carefully, and consider.
The thing that sends me ’round the bend this morning, that seriously makes me want to stick hot needles into my eyes, is the fact that Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are going to go head-to-head on April 9th in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn.
I am all knotted up, just thinking about it. I will continue to be in a state of knots, clutching my Crucifix and Saint Eligius holy card until the race is over and all horses and riders walk off the track, sound.
Oaklawn has bloated the purse for this race, just to lure these two horses into Arkansas. (Bloated purses shouldn’t count toward a horse’s earnings, and therefore their status. Curlin shouldn’t be trumped by virtue of the fact that a horse has won a five-million-dollar race. To up the purse by a factor of 10 is transparent. It is madness, and a marketing ploy which I cannot fathom.) Oaklawn runs a nice meet, but it’s aiming to be The Meet of 2010. And they figure that the way to do this is to up the purse for a race to such a disgustingly high number that horse owners on Mars will salivate. Horses may respond to carrots, but apparently the Cellas are counting on humans responding to their own version of the orange vegetable.
Thus begins the frenzy. God knows which other horses will be invited to face them. Of those who are invited–who will respond? I wouldn’t, if I were a horse.
But then again, there’s a better-than-average chance that if only one other horse is entered–she’ll win. And the reason why she’ll win is simple: because no one, not a single soul, will be screaming their guts out for her. She’ll be able to focus on her job: that of felling two record-shattering Thoroughbreds, including the reigning Horse of the Year.
And in the process, making herself an accidental superstar.
All the pageantry, pomp, media coverage and blood-curdling wailing will be directed at Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra and her nemesis-by-virtue-of-human-marketing-campaigns, Zenyatta.
Let’s say it: Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are not enemies. They’re not friends or stablemates. They don’t even know each other. They’re not Facebook Friends, either. They’re not BFFs. They don’t Tweet each other. They don’t paint each other’s hooves in shades of fuchsia and giggle about the silly humans who want them to be frenemies.
They’re sentient beings, but because of that pesky lack of opposable thumbs–they’ve not read anything about each other, unless their trainers are reading to them.
They’ve been in the same place only once, at Churchill Downs last May. The media did not announce with a flourish that the two great horses had tea and peppermints in Louisville, so it’s unlikely that they’ve even seen each other’s eyeballs.
So how, I must ask, are these two horse enemies? Why “must” there be a face-off anywhere, never mind in Arkansas? Is there a score to settle? Did Zenyatta say something nasty about Rachel Alexandra’s Mother in a bar? Are we back in the Wild West, when any excuse for a fist- or gun-fight ended in carnage? And how far removed is this situation from the Wild West or ancient Rome, for that matter? (“Christians, meet lions. Lions, Christians…”)
Does not any of the insistence that these two magnificent horses race against each other remind you of a primitive-but-yet-contemporary blood-sport, that of dogfighting?
Can it be that the same people who condemn Michael Vick for sponsoring dog fights are the same who will put $500 on either Rachel or Zen to win?
The two horses will not duke it out in a ring or the infield at Oaklawn–technically, this is not a horse fight.
What it is, is a spectacle, orchestrated by a race track at the prodding of misguided journalists and fans who aren’t thinking–to draw attendees and wagering figures that they’ve never seen before.
This is a freak show planned around two horses, for the sole purpose of making money for people who have never touched either horse, and who never will.
There’s nothing to be gained by pitting the two great mares against each other. Nothing.
“Bragging rights”?? Neither has anything to prove, to anyone. (To whom do they have to prove it? You? Me? Some pasty-faced writer somewhere who gets printed for instigating trouble?) If both horses retired this afternoon, all that could honestly be written about them was that they had spectacular careers, each achieving great things.
And that they both set the bar higher for all Thoroughbreds–not just fillies and mares.
The only thing that will be accomplished by racing these two beautiful, sentient horses against each other in Arkansas on April 9th is that someone will walk away with a lot of money, and someone else will have a long, quiet ride back home.
It’s expected by the media and misguided fans that one of the two horses will “prove” herself, and win the Apple Blossom.
Why would you assume that? It is entirely possible that a third horse, she who isn’t expected to win, has no huge recognition–may take the day.
Even Secretariat lost, to Onion.
You see, the thing that worries me about this situation is Smarty Jones.
I was one of the 120,000 who trekked to Belmont in 2004 to see Smarty Jones win the Triple Crown.
Uh, yuh. That didn’t happen.
I didn’t try to get near the paddock before the Belmont, itself–I wasn’t about to argue with 10,000 paddock-hangers. I stayed in my Clubhouse seat and watched the paddock on the JumboTron. As Smarty was walked into the paddock–and the entire time he was there–he was absolutely besieged by thousands of well-wishers–people who loved him passionately, mind you–screaming, chanting, “Smar-ty! Smar-ty!” The psychic energy emanating from that paddock area was overwhelming–even on the other side of the building, we could hear and feel it, without audio from the JumboTron. The noise was deafening.
I turned to Walter and said, plainly, “He just lost the Triple Crown.”
Walter asked why, and I told him to look at Smarty’s face. He was freaked out. His eyes were showing white–and not the Crazy Eye White that we know marks a horse who’s a huge winner. No, his eyes, and the confused tossing of his head, indicated clearly that the beautiful Champion who’d won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with such grace, America’s Darling–was not capable of rising above the cacophony, focusing and conquering Big Sandy that day.
He was squashed by people who loved him.
“Of Mice and Men,” John Steinbeck’s landmark novella about America’s Great Depression of the 1930s, features a lead character ironically named, “Lennie Small.” Lennie is big, hulking, developmentally disabled, and loves soft things, especially furry animals. Precisely because he is intellectually delayed, he doesn’t understand–no matter how hard or often his best friend, George Milton, tries to explain to him–that the strength of his love kills the very things he loves so well. (I’m certain that Steinbeck gave George the surname, Milton, thinking about “Paradise Lost.”) The image of the hulk-like Lennie holding on to a bunny rabbit to tightly that he squeezed the life out of it still lingers in my mind, 38 years after I first read the book in English class.
I was devastated by the bunny’s death. How, I wondered, can you love something to death?
Lennie loved soft things, so he liked to pet them. He petted them, hard. The fact that Lennie loved the very beings he killed is irrelevant: they’re just as dead as if he’d intentionally put a gun to their fuzzy little heads.
Dead is dead, regardless of intention.
Rachel Alexandra fans and Zenyatta fans love their favorite Thoroughbred–so we want to be near them. Funny, we say that we love horses and we respect them–but for some reason, that respect doesn’t translate into giving them space. Even the most horse-loving race fan still has that lingering “humancentrism,” the belief that what we want trumps what’s good for a horse–even our favorite Champion.
It doesn’t matter if Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra needs space–physical and emotional: we want to be near them, as close as possible, and that’s what counts. Our needs. Our wants. We are willing to do whatever we have to, to break the rules if we must–to be near that sacred horse.
But I question whether we really love the horse, if we don’t respect her enough to give her space just to be? Truly we are humancentrists, because our love for the horses does not take rank over our own selfish obsession to get as close as possible to the object of our desire.
In so doing–we become Lennie Smalls.
And if we’re willing to sneak around backstretches by night to get close to “our” horses–what do you think the chances are of all these fans (of both horses) giving the Warrior Women the space they need to get focused, and spend their time at Oaklawn in just the company of their connections?
If a prizefighter needs to be surrounded only by his team, and to go into the Zone before a fight–how much more does such a sensitive, sentient being as a Thoroughbred need her rightful moments of silence? Horses are, at their core, Zen. But that Zen can be stolen–or at least disrupted–by the sound of 75,000 screaming fans. Rachel Alexandra was less-isolated than Zenyatta this past year: Rachel traveled all over the country, a businesswoman whose suitcase and BlackBerry are always packed. She encountered many different situations, and God knows, she’s used to throngs of worshippers. Every Monday morning at 5:30, we were out there, voyeurs jockeying for the best position at the Oklahoma Training Track to see her work, hotwalk and bathe.
(Note that, in the natural quietude of the Oklahoma, we were all acutely aware that this was her time and space–Rachel Alexandra owned the mist rising on little cats’ paws, not we. Like courtiers paying homage to their Queen, we respectfully took our places at the rail or near the clockers’ stand, and just drank it all in.)
Rachel is far-more used to crowds or admirers outside the setting of a race, itself, whereas (from what I understand) Zenyatta led a more isolated existence last year.
But in either case–I remember Smarty, and have to wonder–to fear–that more damage will be done by those who love the two big women than not. Smarty couldn’t tell the difference between 10,000 people screaming at him because they loved him–and 10,000 people screaming that they wanted to kill him.
A little logical argumentation:
a) All horses understand human language–but in the cacophony if 10,000 people screaming, how can the words be discerned? If they were bellowing at you, would you be able to ascertain their intention? Unlikely.
b) Add to that the fact that, after four million years–horses, even our brilliant, shimmering, Pegasus-like archetypal Thoroughbreds–are still prey animals.
Ergo: even in the most well-trained Thoroughbreds, those who are self-actualized and centered (e.g., Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra), you still have an animal who hears or senses violence and is ready to run. You can’t breed out the instinct to save one’s own life. Instinct resides squarely at the intersection of spirit and body. (Surely priests and imams understand this concept better than scientists.)
And at no point in the future will the roles be reversed, and humans become prey, and horses become predators.
The overwhelming love of fans for their Champions may very well cause them to want to run.
But not necessarily straight, and then turning left a couple of times.
And there’s a huge difference between the competitive, controlled, focused, pounding, full-throttle, ears-back running of a horse race–and horses running like bats out of Hell, hither and yon, because their world is shaken by a potentially painful situation. (See “Bureau of Land Management,” “helicopters” and “round-ups” for an example of flight instinct in action.)
* I’m not afraid that my beloved Rachel Alexandra won’t win.
* I’m not afraid that Zenyatta will “prove” to be superior–this race will prove none of that.
* There’s nothing written anywhere, no absolute capital-T Truth that reads, “The Apple Blossom is the proving ground for horses…”
My fear is that, like the dead bunnies and mice who fell prey to Lennie Small’s obsessive love, the two great Champion horses will somehow become victims of the Rage of Love. Fans of both horses feel that “their” horse is the best. The fans who are present at Oaklawn on April 9th will bring a truckload negativity baggage toward the other horse onto the grounds, even unwittingly.
Even their positive energy will be translated into that which will feel like a threat to the very horses who are the center of all this love.
My fear is that one or both of the great girls will suffer emotional damage from the wave of conflicting love at the paddock. That sounds earthy-crunchy, and nebulous, doesn’t it? That I’m concerned about psychic damage to two strong, strapping Thoroughbreds.
Smarty Jones was the only favorite in that Belmont, it was only his fans losing their minds. 120,000 people who desperately wanted the little man to become a Triple Crown Winner. The hopes of 120,000 fans, all focusing on one word: “Smar-ty!”
Unlike Smarty, two horses will have overwrought fans at the Oaklawn paddock, verbally duking it out to prove…nothing. Who can scream the name of their favorite horse the loudest?
The only thing that either Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta had to prove has already been proven: that female Thoroughbreds can and should race against males. Case closed.
The horses, themselves, have no beef with each other:
* it’s many of their fans (who, admit it, can get out of control, especially when alcohol is added to the formula).
* It’s many in the media, intent on selling more ads, magazines and newspapers, and so, fueling the fire.
* It’s Oaklawn, and those who see Dark Bay and translate it to green.
It seems that everyone who wants this race to happen–other than the horses’ connections–has a motive, whether it’s to prove something that can’t be proven, or to make boatloads of cash.
To those carpetbaggers who stand to make some dough-re-mi (not the horses’ actual connections)–this is a golden opportunity.
To those fans who, for some reason I cannot fathom, have been praying for this to occur–it’s the answer to their insistent Facebook notes and emails to Editors.
I don’t know what it is to the horse’s actual connections, but I wish they’d just sit back, cool their jets and not allow themselves to be pressured by the media. Think about it, Gentlemen: the only reason so many in the media are so hot to see your horses race is not because they’re hoping to find a sweet story to write about you.
God knows, they’ve trashed you a lot in the recent past. Like, yesterday.
It’s so they can make mo’ money, period. Ad sales rake in a ton of cashola.
The reason why there’s no actual tabloid in horse racing is that we don’t need a tabloid filled with sensationalism, urging an unthinking public to believe nonsense. Virtually every racing magazine and newspaper takes its turn sounding like one, at one time or another.
[The Big Disclaimer: Before you get your jodhpurs in a twist: I am definitely not saying that every racing journalist and every racing publication is a purveyor of crap for the sake of making money. That’s absurd, and a grandiose overstatement of facts. If nothing else, that statement, alone, would negate my own arguments. Any argument that begins or ends with “always,” or “all” is automatically negated, as there is never an instance when say, all cows are spotted. Ergo–an absolute argument is an invalid argument]
(I do state, however, without blinking, that there are too many talking heads in the racing media or on the sidelines–media who occasionally do racing, not necessarily the most well-informed outlets–who go along because it’s the easy route, or whose actions are irresponsible if not downright duplicitous. One minute they trash Jess Jackson, the next they’re calling him and acting all girly, to get an exclusive for their publication.
It is these representatives who often take up a cause like goading Rachel into racing Zenyatta because
a) they mistakenly believe that it is “good” for the sport; or
b) because it is good for business. Their business, that of selling advertising and publications.
These are the media of whom I am wary–not the honest, hard-working people who genuinely love horses and wish only that which is best for a horse. I know a ton of those good people in racing media: obviously they are not the objects of my critique.)
I do not want to see either Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra vanned out of Oaklawn Park because she’s “off.” An emotionally-damaged Thoroughbred, one who needs a rest because she felt assaulted by hordes of those who claim to love her–is as broken as one with a hairline fracture.
I can still hear thousands of people chanting, “Smar-ty! Smar-ty!”
And I remember, sadly, the confused look on that beautiful animal’s face as he tried to hear the cries of just one person, so he could determine the level of threat.
The only real threat was that he was carrying far more than the hopes of 120,000 people on his withers.
If Smarty Jones could call the girls (again, no thumbs), he’d tell them that it’s dangerous for a horse to try to carry more than just one person at a time.
* Two is painful, and can cause skeletal damage.
* Carrying the weight of an entire sport, even the backs of the two greatest Thoroughbreds in American racing will bow under the strain of so much pressure.
And since there’s no valid reason for it–other than the purpose of stirring up a frenzy and making mammon for those not directly associated with either horse–the situation seriously gets my goat.