Racing's Winter of Discontent

Picture a deep blue sky, a slight late winter’s chill in the air, warmed by the sun, and rows of colorful tulips bringing the first images of the impending spring.

Picture a kaleidoscope of familiar colors atop noble steeds who have migrated north with the robins. Picture cigar smoke-filled buses and trains arriving one after another from all parts of the city. Picture people leaving work in the middle of the afternoon to participate in an annual rite of spring.

Picture all this and you have merely begun to picture opening day at Aqueduct back in the '60s and '70s, traditionally held in mid-March each year.

New Yorkers every December went into racing hibernation, building up their funds and their unbridled enthusiasm, counting the days when the glorious sport of Thoroughbred racing returned to the Big Apple. With it came the rush of humanity off the train platform headed for the mutuel windows to get down on the Daily Double.

This was a time of filled grandstands and of sound and healthy horses, most of whom were coming off much-needed vacations of their own. Some braved the New York winters and the cold winds off Jamaica Bay to remain up north and train. Others began the journey up from Florida, where the vast majority of horses wintered and competed at Hialeah over one of the fairest and safest surfaces in the country. This is where Derby horses were born every February and March.

Some horses remained in Florida, moving over to Gulfstream, while others headed straight to the Bluegrass to take up residence at Keeneland. Oaklawn Park and Fair Grounds housed a number of horses, but had not yet gained enough stature to attract the nation’s leading Thoroughbreds.

California was a million miles away, and you rarely saw a Santa Anita-based horse travel east, other than perhaps a rare participant for the Flamingo or Florida Derby. California horses still were considered inferior to the powerful Eastern horses, except for an occasional super horse like Swaps or the brilliant, undefeated Majestic Prince who would make their presence felt in the Kentucky Derby.

But come mid-March, the epicenter of racing was New York, and opening day at Aqueduct was the New York racing fan’s holiday, the day everyone eagerly awaited. It was the coming of spring and the return of familiar faces. It was the Kentucky Derby trail, beginning with the six-furlong Swift Stakes, the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes, the one-turn mile of the Gotham Stakes, and the main Derby prep, the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial.

These were the days when Derby horses began their campaigns in sprint stakes to sharpen themselves up for the upcoming major races, and, oh, how thrilling it was to get our first look in the flesh at 3-year-olds Damascus, Secretariat, Hoist the Flag, and Reviewer in the Bay Shore. The last named actually carried 130 pounds in the race.

There were no thoughts then of horses breaking down, because it rarely happened. Horses were sound, well rested, but still sharp and ready to run. The hierarchy in New York consisted of men like Phipps, Widener, Vanderbilt, Whitney, Galbreath, Woodward, Morris, and Hanes. These were powerful men who were sportsmen and horse lovers first and foremost and who bred and raised their own horses and would never tolerate the carnage we’re seeing now in New York, as over-medicated, unsound, and over-raced horses compete over surfaces that apparently are not safe enough to prevent the injuries we are witnessing. This in no way implies that all horses in New York in the winter are not fit to race. Most of them likely are sound. But enough of them apparently are not. Either that or an unsafe track is to blame. Pick your poison.

Yes, the state needs the income, as do the horsemen who cannot compete with the big-name outfits that will ship in later. But what about the needs of the horse? No one can claim to know for sure why we’re seeing so many catastrophic injuries in New York. But the fact is, we are seeing them, and it has to stop, even if it means shutting down racing in New York for the winter, as in the past, and allowing the horses to heal their wounds, strengthen their bone, and simply re-energize after long campaigns and not subject them to unsafe conditions. If that is not deemed feasible, then drastic measures must be taken to re-surface the inner track, and this can only be accomplished by people who actually know what they’re doing.

Words mean little these days, and no one seems to have any answers. The bottom line is, we have to start putting the horse first or we will one day cease to exist as a sport or a business.

If only we could heed the words of Chief Seattle: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

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