This one is personal. Come to think of it, perhaps it shouldn't be.
Racing has suffered a major blow this year due to the deaths of a number of horses at Santa Anita, which resulted in the surprising and controversial banishment of one of the sport's leading trainers, Jerry Hollendorfer. Many of those who have castigated racing and called for its demise may, in their own heart and mind, feel they are looking out for the horses and truly believe that what they are asking or demanding is in the horses’ best interest.
The truth is, their vision is clouded and their thought process is convoluted. Sometimes the heart is the enemy of rational thinking and blinds us from seeing the repercussions of wanting something that is irrational and damaging to those we wish to protect.
Yes, the death of any horse is one too many, and each death results in grieving most people never see or hear about and therefore are not aware of. To eliminate racing would result in the death of far more horses than the rare death of a horse injured on the racetrack. Santa Anita was a freakish occurrence caused by several factors and not indicative of what happens in racing. To list the repercussions of racing suddenly disappearing would take far too long.
That is not the purpose of this column. As I mentioned, this column is personal, but it reflects the love owners and trainers and everyone connected with the horses have for these noble creatures. The horses are their life, and unless you can witness firsthand the affection and camaraderie between the horses and the people who sacrifice so much to care for them seven days a week, 365 days a year, you had best reserve your disdain for the sport until you are more knowledgeable on the subject.
Tell these people that their undying love for their horses means nothing and you want their world to cease to exist. Tell the breeders who watch the young horses run free in the fields just for the love of it that their thousands of acres will now be empty. Tell the owners who spend millions of dollars for a dream that their dream is dead. Tell the jockeys, trainers, grooms, and exercise riders to develop new skills and try to find employment. And most of all tell the thousands and thousands of Thoroughbreds around the country you want them to stop doing what they were bred to do and find new homes and new ways to release all the speed and competitive spirit that have been in their blood since the beginning of time.
This is the story of one of those horses. Her name is Ahvee's Destiny and she earned a special place in the hearts of her owners Avi and Rhoda Freedberg. I use Ahvee's Destiny as an example of what these horses mean to their owners and how they become part of their family, but Avi and Rhoda represent owners all over the country.
I know Ahvee's Destiny well, and Avi and Rhoda, who own a home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. right on the grounds of the Oklahoma training track, are two of my dearest friends. That is why this column is personal and needs to be made public ... for all Thoroughbred owners and all those who wish to eliminate an integral part of their lives.
Ahvee's Destiny was Avi and Rhoda's first horse and introduced them to a new and wonderful world that eventually resulted in more horses and building a beautiful home on Fifth Avenue in Saratoga. Walk outside the gate of their backyard and you walk into heaven, as horses continually gallop by on the Oklahoma training track. Sit in their backyard having your morning coffee as a steady stream of horses and trainers like Wayne Lukas, Bill Mott, and Steve Asmussen walk by their back gate on their ponies, occasionally dropping a "good morning" as they pass by.
Ahvee's Destiny, an attractive New York-bred chestnut filly by Rizzi, won 11 races from 37 starts and earned almost $486,000. Five of those victories came at Saratoga, where every win is earned and leaves a lasting memory. Avi and Rhoda's magnificent home stands as a monument to those victories. From ages 2 to 5 she won nine of her 24 starts with six placings. Although she began losing her form at ages 6 and 7 she gave Avi and Rhoda one final gift near the end of her career, winning the Smart N Fancy Stakes at Saratoga at odds of 12-1. Only once in her career had she gone off at odds that high.
As a broodmare she gave Avi and Rhoda Daring Destiny, who won two races, and her current 3-year-old Tzipi, who has won one of her two starts.
I have visited Ahvee's Destiny a number of times with Avi and Rhoda, first at Bill Johnson's Stonegate Stables in Fort Edward, N.Y. and then unfortunately at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Saratoga, just a few minutes drive from Avi and Rhoda's house. Ahvee had developed a foot problem that continued to worsen. Everything possible was done to prevent the coffin bone from deteriorating. Avi and Rhoda would visit her constantly and there was no doubt Ahvee knew them, especially because they would always come armed with bags of treats and carrots and lavish affection on her as parents would their child. Ahvee loved her treats and would wolf them down no matter what condition she was in at the time. It was always sad to leave her as she stood there looking for more treats.
I watched the love affair between Avi and Rhoda and their horse and I knew their relationship was something special, a bond that linked them, in an anthropomorphic way, as kindred spirits. Ahvee was indeed a part of their family, just as their first dog Cricket was and present dog Jose is. They race under the name Everything's Cricket Racing, a tribute to their first canine love. Ahvee will always be their first equine love and hold a special place in their hearts.
There were times when Ahvee's foot seemed to be stable and there was hope she would survive. But it was not to be. Just before the opening of Saratoga, Avi and Rhoda were given the bad news and they knew their impending visit to see Ahvee the following week would be their last. It was time to say goodbye for good. What normally was a time of great joy and anticipation, the arrival at Saratoga, this time was one of sadness and reflection. And so, with treats in hand, they paid one final visit to the horse who changed their lives.
Avi could not hold back his feelings and he wrote in his email report to friends and family,
"Last Wednesday we came to Saratoga to see our first horse, our champion, our friend, a member of our family, Ahvee's Destiny, for the last time. We fed her carrots and cookies. Dr. Shawn Morrell worked very hard to save her over the last year. Unfortunately, she, he, and we all lost our battle. Her coffin bone was deteriorating and sinking. Nothing more could be done to get her healthy again and she would have suffered before succumbing. So, we fed her treats, kissed her over and over again, stroked her beautiful skin and said our goodbyes. Then, Dr. Morrell saw to it that she was euthanized and died peacefully later that day.
"Since 2007, we don't know a Saratoga without Ahvee's Destiny. We are empty, hurt and dazed. Who will nicker at us? Who will kiss us? Who will we love like we have loved her? Lucas, our guide during our recent trip to Africa, always repeated a phrase, 'And life goes on.' He's right, of course. But it changes. Sometimes, like this time, not for the better. Goodbye, our dear friend. We will always love you in our hearts and we will miss you so-o-o very much!
"So, our oldest horse is gone. Later that same day, we had to authorize euthanizing our youngest horse, the 2019 foal of Candy for Kisses, who was born on April 26th. She was a beautiful foal who contracted Rhodococcus, a severe equine pneumonia, in Kentucky. What a bad day! Yes, life goes on. Here I am with Ahvee's daughter Tzipi, trying to get a new source of kisses from my four-legged granddaughter. She's very sweet. She broke her maiden at Aqueduct but bled. We'll see if she continues her recovery, when she next races. It would be nice if she could assume her mother's mantel at Saratoga."
I think Avi speaks for all horse owners. I hope all those who wish to abolish racing can feel Avi and Rhoda's pain and the emptiness in their lives. I hope their love of their horse and all the joy she brought them, as expressed in Avi's heartfelt words, can somehow clear the vision of those on this misguided crusade.
Ahvee's Destiny lived for 15 years, not a long time for a Thoroughbred. Yes, she was adored and pampered during that time, but in the end she gave more than she received. That's what Thoroughbreds do.