Still Got Game - By Richard Zwirn

Most assert that it’s not fun to get old. Infirmities plague the body, friends fade away, hair too. Stomachs droop, children grow up and move away, while wrinkles appear and some memories disappear.

The two best anti-aging remedies I’ve been fortunate enough to find are running and breeding Thoroughbreds on our small upstate New York farm. Each provides opportunities to remain active and motivated. In order to stave off any potential mid-life crisis and keep my aging in perspective, I decided to run a marathon for my 50th birthday. It was not easy “turning back the clock.” Training consisted of long runs, intervals, and hill repeats for the three months preceding the big event. My legs labored, hamstrings stung, lungs burned…dogs chased, deerflies bit, and heaps of laundry accumulated. I loved every wonderful, horrible minute of it.

On race day I felt invigorated in testing my limits and showed more grit than gift in finishing. I took more of a beating than my 401k but felt satisfaction in the effort and result. Throughout training and the 26.2-mile race itself, I had a great many opportunities to ponder not only my mid-life status, but also racehorses. Specifically, the aging ones.

I have always been a fan of the inspiring “old warhorses” in the sport like Round Table, Kelso, Forego, John Henry, Evening Attire, Better Talk Now, The Tin Man, and others…the grizzled veterans who have faced the starter on 50 or so occasions over a five- or six-year career and have demonstrated not only ability and durability, but mental toughness. These horses love the game. They are happiest at play, and running provides this outlet. There is something left—unfinished—for them to do.

A 9-year-old gelding we bred is still running and winning at Finger Lakes racetrack. This wise elder may lack the speed and strength of his younger counterparts but concedes nothing in terms of enthusiasm and tenacity, regardless of his seniority. This horse thrives while at the track and loves when those gates “clang” open. His handlers will know when it’s the right time for him to greet the starter for the last time…it’ll be when he is glum during the post parade, sour at the barn, discouraged in the test barn, and “hurting” while racing. But for now, he seems as goofy, playful, and competitive as he did when we prepped him as a yearling.

So, let’s not be too eager to rid ourselves of an old runner. In fact, the horse racing community might want to consider showcasing some of these honest, trusted heroes to the public in a Master’s Circuit series—just like there are in human track and field circuits. Examples of races for “Old Timers Day” features might include:

• The Breeders’ Cup Masters Mile (6-year-olds and up)

• The Geezer Gallop (8-year-olds and up)

• The Triple “Sevens” Crown (7 and up–seven furlongs, one mile and 70yds., 1 7/16 miles)

Age does, indeed, diminish performance; therefore, these gallant athletes should no longer always have to compete with the likes of those 3- and 4-year-olds who are in their prime. The greatest competitors in any athletic endeavor have to come to terms with the reality that while the mind is still keen to push as hard as ever, the body is reluctant to respond.

Training regimens certainly need to be tailored (less intensity, moderate mileage, more variety) to meet the changing needs of this equine demographic. The temptation exists to do too much with a horse that’s “long in the tooth.” That is why careful management is so important. Proper diet and rest, massage, and icing/cold water therapy are all potentially valuable conditioning components—as I recently learned.

But the older racehorse also surely enjoys sporadic breaks from training, as it allows for rolling in the sand, plucking alfalfa from mother earth, and gazing at the moonlit distant hills. Easing up in life might be necessary for all, but being put “out to pasture” too soon is not always easy. This is especially true for the steeds that still have a “fire in the belly.”

Let them run…but let’s try to allow for opportunities to compete against their peers. It will help them, as it has helped me, from “feeling our age.”

For future birthdays, however, I think I’ll stick with doing less mileage and more cake.

Richard Zwirn completed his birthday marathon in 3:15…not bad for an old plodder

Recent Posts

More Blogs