I am cheering with my whole heart and soul, screaming really, my throat becoming raw, jumping up and down, urging the beautiful bay filly to keep surging forward. She is stunning—raw power, gleaming coat, the crooked stripe on her forehead and bright yellow of her jockey’s silks distinguishing her from her older, more sedately adorned rival. They are in a tight duel—they have led the pack since leaving the starting gate—and now as they crest the top of the stretch, my favorite has started to pull out in front. I am yelling and kicking and riding my own ride down the stretch, as though my life depended on it, as though by sharing my own energy I can help her to cross the finish line in front.
I am in my parent’s living room, hundreds of miles from Belmont Park in New York, where the Breeder’s Cup is being held. It is October 27, 1990 and I am 14. My cheers and encouragement are heard only by my mother and my cat, who quickly left the room as soon as she felt the pulse of my frenetic and overly wired energy. Until that summer, we had lived just outside of Saratoga Springs, NY, and I had spent many blissful August days standing track side, admiring Thoroughbreds, learning about pedigrees, and cheering for my favorites. I dressed as a jockey every Halloween, wearing handmade pale yellow and purple silks. I kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about anything Thoroughbred, each article I found about horse racing carefully filed and labelled in a series of big red books which lived in my closet. On major stakes race days, I listened to the call on WGNA AM radio, religiously watched every Thoroughbred race televised on NBC, and in the age of the VCR, dutifully recorded the Triple Crown series every year, a true disciple of the sport waiting for a return of the king who would once again wear the Triple Crown.
I am watching the 1990 Breeder’s Cup Distaff, a race for champion fillies and mares aged 3 and up. The race was largely billed as a showdown between the race’s defending champion, Bayakoa, the six year old phenom and two time American Champion Older Female Horse, and Go for Wand, who had already been voted the recipient of the 1990 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Three Year Old Filly. It was Go for Wand who I was pulling for—and with just about 100 yards left in the race, it looked like she had it. She had a nose in front and was still pushing forward.
And in a split second, her forehand dropped, her neck rolled, and she flipped over, throwing her jockey Randy Romero to the ground before standing and trying to limp her way down the track.
And in that same split second, as surely as I had ever known anything in my whole fourteen years, I knew that I had just watched a horse sign her own death certificate on national television. Bayakoa went on to win; Go for Wand suffered an open fracture to her right cannon bone.
My screams of enthusiasm became screams of horror, and I felt something come from deep inside my chest which I had never felt before. I thought my insides were actually going to come out like a scene in Poltergeist— I was screaming and crying and shaking and wanted to throw things. I was so, so, so angry and on the verge of losing control. My mother came running, turned off the TV and tried to understand what had happened. But I just couldn’t speak.
I know now that what I had felt that day was rage. The flame burned so intense and so hot that after the emotion quelled, I realized that it had taken from me any desire to ever watch a live horse race again. In one fateful moment, I went from being a devoted fan of the sport to someone who could no longer watch a horse race without first knowing that all of the horses made it back to the barn at the end.
Refusing to watch has prevented me from seeing more contemporary horrors like Barbaro break his right hind leg in the 2006 Preakness, or Eight Belles fall at the end of the 2008 Kentucky Derby, the result of the same exact type of fracture as Barbaro but in both front fetlocks. But not watching has not prevented me from hearing about these horrible tragedies and then once again replaying the fall and death of Go for Wand where it is seared into my memory.
This might not be a popular opinion right now, but I have felt the same way about upper level eventing for years. I have been an event rider since 1997 and have organized at least two USEA horse trials per year since 2006. But I am tired of trying to defend the sport when it feels like every time there is a major international contest, one of the participants does not come home. I have never competed at preliminary level or higher, and I never want to. I am in no way a part of the upper level eventing community; I can barely even be called a passing fan. But I am a member of the greater eventing community, and so the loss this past weekend of the talented Thoroughbred cross gelding Crackerjack, and subsequent online civil war about both that specific situation and the greater questions of safety in the sport of eventing, affects me too.
In recent years, I have spent a lot of time ruminating on what is fair for us to ask our equine partners to do, and how far we should push them. I am sure I still don’t know the answer. Horses are amazing, powerful, strong and yet so fragile. People will offer trite clichés when a horse or rider dies in the course of sport such as, “well, at least they were doing what they loved.” But these are hollow and empty words, and are just a way to fill the void left when a vibrant, athletic and enthusiastic spirit departs us in a shocking and sudden manner. Does anyone really take comfort in them? I doubt it.
People also like to point out that horses have a propensity to harm themselves even in what seem to be the safest of environments; everyone (including me) can tell the story of a horse fatally injured at pasture or in a stall. But can we agree that there is some sort of difference between losing a horse through a freak barnyard mishap and an accident in competition? I think so.
It might seem like a stretch to believe that one incident can change someone from loving a horse sport to hating it. So if I am honest about my feelings regarding Thoroughbred racing, the seeds were there before Go for Wand’s death. I had seen horses go down before, and their memories still haunt me. In fourth grade, I wrote a short story about one, Foundation Plan, a dark bay colt foaled in 1982, who died at Saratoga while I watched from the rail. Seeds can sit and wait for the right set of variables to present themselves so that they can grow into a fully formed thought or emotion. Maybe value-driven emotions need to germinate for a while before they can come to flower. When the conditions are right, your true beliefs will appear before you in their full intensity.
In an October 29, 1990 New York Times article titled, “Breeders Cup: Track Life Goes On After a Day of Death”, writer Steven Crist notes that that year’s races claimed the lives of three horses and caused the forced retirement of a fourth, Adjudicating, who finished the Sprint but was found to have a repairable fracture later that night. From the article:
“Go for Wand’s trainer, Billy Badgett, was inconsolable immediately after the death of what he called the “horse of a lifetime” but spoke about it yesterday morning. “She had never been challenged that way,” he said. “She just tried too hard.”
Earlier in the piece, Crist notes: “Casual fans, who had come to Belmont on a rare outing or tuned into the national telecast of the $10 million racing card out of curiosity, were left seeking explanations, while industry insiders tried to explain that this was a horrible concentration of a rare aspect of the sport.”
Twenty seven years later and not much seems different. While immediate connections grieve, the greater community recoils in horror. And an industry is left trying to pick up the pieces.