What can you tell from a horse's past performances?
His name is Dread, an 8-year-old bay gelding. (Who would name a horse Dread?) His sire is Devil's Bag, who was mentioned here on the pages of "Final Turn" the week after we bought his son. Small world. His dam is an anonymous (to me) Northern Prospect mare named Prospective Bidder. He RNA'd as a yearling at Keeneland in 2003 and again at Fasig-Tipton Texas in 2004. He raced 14 times, showing twice. He's a bleeder. He was ridden by some nice jockeys at some nice tracks, but, in the end, only won $3,039.
The path of his career is shown by where he ran: First at Oaklawn, in a $32,000 maiden special weight, Calvin Borel up. From there he went to Keeneland and Churchill, after which the purses and the tracks got smaller. He tried the turf twice, Borel and Mark Guidry up, but with no success. By late 2005 he was at Mountaineer for four races, before finishing up at Will Rogers and Blue Ribbon Downs, running at the end for a $5,000 claiming tag. He tried everything from 4 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, but the results were similar regardless of distance. The race comments tell his story: "steady fade," "4-5w, faded," "duel, 4w, tired," "duel, inside, weakened," "rushed, all done 3/16," "soft pace, empty late," "through after half." His last two races at Blue Ribbon are described simply as "tired," "tired."
And what can't you tell from past performances?
He's 16.2 hands, nice conformation, though a little over in the knee, very polite, tenderfooted on the front. He has a crooked blaze that points toward his left nostril, like Lost in the Fog but without the speed. We call him Escalante, after the national monument in southern Utah. He's still finding his position in our little herd, with snorts, squeals, and monitory kicks all around, but so far no harm done. We did not rescue him in the usual sense of that word. He had a nice, dry stall, plenty to eat, and caretakers who enjoyed his company. If anything, we were rescuing him from an uncertain future, because in today's economy and today's horse industry, one never knows. But really, our purchase was more of a simple retirement, not a rescue. He's too young just to stand in a pasture and graze, but I'm learning how to jump, and if I have a one-meter oxer in me (about which I am entirely uncertain), he's the horse to take me there. He's our third retiree, and we're very pleased.
May I be honest? Those of us who take on retired Thoroughbreds can be a little self-congratulatory, an observation from which I do not exempt myself. My friends tell me I act as if God himself hands me the pen when I write a check for a retiree, and maybe they're right. People may be able to look out after themselves, and most of us pretty much get what we've got coming, but horses-Thoroughbreds especially-can often use a helping hand, human or divine. There are just too damn many of them. Their lives are so long and their careers so short. Too many foals are born; too few make it to the track. Those that get there get hurt and broken, juiced and blocked, fed milkshakes, or injected with snake venom. Some get abused; more get neglected; a few get abandoned. And as for those who end up slaughtered for their meat? Enough said.
So, we'll be around, we buyers of the retirees. We'll take the tired ones, the hurt ones, the barren ones, the slow ones. The ones who are "empty late," or "through after half" or "all done 3/-16." You'll see us around, roaming the shedrows at the lower-tier tracks, or watching the saddling paddock before the cheap claiming races, or hanging around the auction ring at the regional mixed sales. We'll be the ones who are less interested in the horse's engine than his eye, less interested in her pedigree than her personality, more interested in future possibilities than in past performances. And do we seem a little full of ourselves, a little holier-than-thou, a little smug, even- Forgive us; we're on a mission.
Robert Laurence teaches the equine law class in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.