Thoroughbred racing is facing a crisis unlike anything it has faced before, and it is something those in high positions cannot see or fathom. The country is in a desperate,
bordering on panicky, state right now and it has every right to be, because we
are dealing with a faceless enemy whose life span is unknown, as is its power
But in our cloistered
world of Thoroughbred racing we must be resilient and forge ahead, even at
great risk, in order to protect the one thing that sustains us: the horse.
Every person who loves
horses and makes their living from horses has been touched by this noble
creature and has had their lives affected by them in some way. The discovery of
horses and horse racing changed my life. No, it gave me my life. I see the
result of that change every time I look at my wife and my daughter, and now my
2-year-old grandson, none of which I would have if it weren't for horses and
I have shared so much
with my family over the past four decades, and now as I ponder the future of
racing, and of the world, I can only think back to some of those precious
moments and how they came to be.
So I look at a photo
album and relive a moment in time that best serves the purpose of this column
at this time. I can still see the images now, as I saw them then and it puts
the impact of horses on our lives in proper perspective
As I look at the photos
I can hear the strains of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" blaring over the public
address system, as jockey Carlos Mendez, aboard Gran Premio José Pedro Ramírez
winner Rock Ascot, stands up in the saddle, flinging his arms up in victory,
and tossing rose petals from the victory blanket in the air. The massive crowd
at Maroñas Racetrack lets out a mighty roar to salute the victors.
With the music still
resounding throughout the track, the winning connections-owner, breeder,
trainer, and jockey and their friends and families-are driven in antique
automobiles to the makeshift winner's podium on the track in front of the
grandstand. Alongside the podium is a mounted military band in decorative
uniforms and cascos (headgear) playing drums, bugles, tubas, and other
With the fans still
applauding and taking pictures, the winners are presented their trophies.
Standing along the rail, my wife Joan and daughter Mandy and I are engulfed by
the cheers, the music, and the on-track festivities. It was at this point that
my daughter says, "All that's missing are fireworks."
Sure enough, seconds
later, an explosion of fireworks from behind the podium light up the darkening
blue sky that has already become illuminated by the lights of the racetrack. It
is a moment that is both spectacular and surreal-a fitting conclusion to a
magical day that saw skydivers rain down on the racetrack carrying banners and
flags. The surrealism is due in part to the fact that we were in Uruguay.
Our trip, at the
invitation of the Uruguayan Breeders' Association, included visits to the
Riviera-like resort of Punta del Este, where the rich and famous congregate each
summer; the amazing Casapueblo, where nature and art meet to form a
kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and images nestled along Uruguay's tranquil
coastline; and the historic, charming town of Colonia, where you can see
spectacular sunsets and the lights from Buenos Aires across the Rio del la
Plata that separates Uruguay and Argentina. Our home base, the capital city of
Montevideo, has miles and miles of beaches that come alive each day with people
jogging, walking, riding bicycles, and strolling with their dogs along the palm
It was at some point
during the trip that it hit me. Everything I was experiencing was due to one
horse. It was through my articles on Invasor and the contacts I had made in
Uruguay that all of this was made possible.
I gave a 90-minute talk
on Invasor to the media and racing officials at Maroñas that was shown later on
the evening news, presented the trophy for one of the big stakes on Ramirez
day, was interviewed by ESPN South America, had every want and need catered to,
and, simply put, was treated like a rock star-all because of a horse.
It was reassuring to
know that the passion people around the world have for racing and for the horse
still was as strong as ever; even 6,000 miles away in a small country most Americans
would have trouble finding on a map.
During Invasor's career
in the United States, I bonded with him as I've never bonded with any horse.
But I never could have imagined how far that bond would take me.
This was a horse who was
found by accident in a paddock in Argentina and sold to three Uruguayans who
had traveled to Argentina with the intention of flying to a farm to look at
horses. But when their flight was canceled due to engine trouble they were
driven to a smaller farm and fell in love with a bay colt they wound up buying
for $20,000. That horse would become a national hero in Uruguay, sweeping the
Triple Crown, each race by huge margins, while remaining undefeated. People
flocked to the racetrack to see him, touch him, take pictures with him, and
attempt to get locks of his hair.
Realizing he would never
gain the international fame he deserved, they reluctantly sold him to Sheikh
Hamdan for $1.5 million, which was an enormous amount of money in Uruguay.
The day he left, part owner Pablo Hernandez
said, "It was like saying goodbye to a son you were never going to see again.
Although the plane left very early in the morning, a lot of people showed up at
the airport to say their goodbyes to Invasor."
But Hernandez was not prepared to bid farewell
to his horse and he traveled around the world from Dubai to Churchill Downs to
watch him run. I had corresponded with Pablo for months, and when we finally
met in the winner's circle following Invasor's victory in the Breeders' Cup
Classic, it was like a reunion of old friends as we hugged each other and posed
for photos with his friends, holding up a large flag of Uruguay. It was a scene
of pure delirium.
After coming to America, Invasor won six
consecutive grade 1 stakes, including the Breeders' Cup Classic and Dubai World
Cup, and was inducted into the racing Hall of Fame in 2013. I visited him at
trainer Kiaran McLaughlin's barn every time I went to Belmont, feeding him
carrots and observing an intelligence you rarely see in a Thoroughbred.
Because of this
remarkable animal I met many people in a faraway land that I still consider
close friends. I discovered a new culture, new food, and a new vibrant world of
Thoroughbred racing that re-kindled the feelings I had for the sport back in
the late 1960s, when all seemed so pure and innocent.
But most of all I
discovered myself. Cloistered away in my home/office every day, I was reluctant
to embark on such an adventure, and it was only after my wife's constant urging
and the excitement of my daughter at the thought of such a trip that I finally
capitulated. So, my self-discovery was due in great part to them.
Now here I am in my
office immersed again in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1),
which this year will not be run until September. It is during crises like this
that we tend to think of better times. I think of Uruguay and of Invasor and
all the memorable moments we shared as a family far from home and all the new
friends we met, and I cannot remove that one thought from my head: it was all
because of a horse. Perhaps those are words everyone should remember, including
those who jeopardize these magnificent creatures. Horses are what we are, what
we have always been, and what we strive to be. For many in the industry they
are our lives.