Orlando, the city where the children of the world come to play – the lucky ones, anyway – still hasn’t decided whether or not the local kids deserve a break.
But they’re kind of leaning in that general direction.
Although no move has been made to offer Freedom Ride a new five year lease to extend the current one, which ends in 2011, the Orlando Sentinel reported that “at least three of the six city commissioners agree that Freedom Ride should stay.” Mayor Buddy Dyer appears to be leaning in that direction as well. But no talks are scheduled, and it’s possible that the city government will take the easy way out – ignore the issue until the contract runs out.
It’s hard to imagine a worse publicity journey than the one which Mayor Dyer embarked upon a few months ago when he decided that the therapeutic riding center in Metro Orlando would be of better use as fallow fields, awaiting funding in the undefined future to become still more soccer fields. As every SUV within one hundred miles of Orlando has at least one soccer-related decal affixed to it, I fail to see why the city feels honor-bound to provide so many playing fields that it can’t spare ten acres for children, adults, and veterans with everything from multiple sclerosis to ADHD, whose lives are changed daily by visits to the horses of Freedom Ride. It appears, to me, anyway, that everyone in Orlando is already playing soccer somewhere.
The president of Freedom Ride’s board of directors, Sam Dunaway, told the Sentinel that starting from scratch, on a new piece of land, would cost more than $500,000 – they would require new barns, new arenas, new paddocks, new everything. To say nothing, of course, of the cost to the users of the program. It might be an hour’s commute from East Orange County to Freedom Ride now. If they ended, say, west of town, in Lake County, where the land is almost, vaguely, sort of, still affordable, it would be more than two hours. Prohibitive in time, to say nothing of gas, inching back again towards three dollars a gallon, and the interminable toll roads which are the only way to get around Orlando.
In 2000, when Orlando was trying to decide what to do with Ben White Raceway, bids were submitted that included creating a showground. Imagine if Orlando, always second best in equine terms to Ocala, Wellington, and Tampa, might have rivaled Tampa’s fairgrounds, the eventual building of HITS Post Time in Ocala or Jacksonville Equestrian Center. If money had been the object, profitable measures were there for the taking, that could have been good for Orlando’s struggling equestrian industry and the city. But the city decided on Freedom Ride, allowed them to build a beautiful facility, and if charity and a sense of decency aren’t enough to allow the group to stay, then a sense of responsibility ought to be.
You can eat it if you want. I wouldn’t.
Here’s a lovely new study by the Equine Welfare Alliance, which followed eighteen slaughter-bound racehorses from the day they were administered bute (remember, it’s reported to the racing officials on race day, and filed) to the day they went to the kill. Oh the delicious, toxic meat. Bute, we should know by now, is a carcinogen, which manifests itself in bone marrow. It is toxic to the point that there are no safe levels permitted in food at all.
We might all be ill-advised to eat cattle, pigs, and chickens. But we’re flipping insane to eat racehorses.
In Alex Brown’s article, “Keeping Bute Out of the Food Chain,” he cites the Daily Racing Form’s statistic that in 2009, “99% of horses that ran in California pre-raced on Bute (7391 out of 7443).”
And these are the legally slaughtered horses.
Meanwhile, in South Florida, the legislators are writing bills creating felony charges for illegal slaughter – you know, when people find a horse they like, tie it to a tree, and butcher it while it is still alive. Evidently, they believe that this practice is limited to polo ponies, so Representative Luis Garcia (D. – Miami-Dade) assured a Miami blogger that they’ve amended the bill criminalizing illegal slaughter to include the transport of polo ponies. Which is interesting, considering the poster child for illegal horse butchering is a paint named Geronimo.
In reading the bill (which cites, in part, that a reason for criminalizing illegal horse slaughter is to “protect Florida’s natural beauty,” since unsightly horse carcasses have been found on previously pastoral roadsides), it appears that previously, it was only illegal to slaughter registered horses. The language reads that it will now “expand the classification of protection for registered breeds of horses to include any animal of the genus Equus (horse.)” Now grade horses are safe, too!
All joking aside, I find it striking that the horse slaughter debate continues to skirt the issue of food safety. You can spare me the arguments that the horse is not livestock, that civilization itself was built on the backs of horses and it is inappropriate to eat such a noble beast. As it happens, I believe all those arguments, too. But there are just as many people who will never be convinced of the social and philosophical reasons why horses are not food.
The real point to be made is that horses are simply not fit to be eaten. In a country which is repeatedly gripped by various medical panics – contaminated vegetables, bacteria-ridden meat, irradiated milk – no one is saying much about the most compelling reason of all not to slaughter horses: they simply aren’t safe to eat.
We all know Guinness is good for you. That’s been the ad slogan since 1929, and it turns out a lot of horsemen extend that slogan straight into the shedrow.
The dark Irish stout has long been a traditional feed additive for Irish horse trainers – and their proteges of all nationalities. Trainer Derek Ryan, originally of County Tipperary, Ireland, told the New York Times that Musket Man, then a Derby Hopeful, “gets one can every day. It helps his appetite. He’s not a finicky eater, but it does him good. The food is their fuel and if they’re not eating well you are in trouble.”
Musket Man followed through for Ryan’s conditioning program with a third-place finish in the Derby, a third in the Preakness (to Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird, so a pretty honest placing), then made his 2010 comeback in a big way at the Super Stakes (Tampa), and, presumably still on a diet of Guinness, worked 4 furlongs in 46.8 on March 27th. Proving that a pint a day does indeed do you good.
He’s not the only horse to like his beer dark. How about Zenyatta, being poured a pint by trainer John Shirreffs? The incomparable Irish-bred steeplechaser Arkle famously had two pints daily to soak his oats.
What could the health benefits truly be? While Ryan cites the yeast as a key appetite stimulant, there are other nutrients in the stout: “Guinness also contains small quantities of iron, calcium, phosphates, some vitamins (including vitamin B) and fiber, according to Guinness Master Brewer, Fergal Murray.” (source:vx50.com)
Besides spurring racehorses on to victory, Guinness is also put to use in show barns around the country for anhydrosis, or non-sweating, which has left so many horses shut in box stalls, with multiple fans blowing on them, because they’ve lost the ability to sweat. A pint of Guinness a day, often in addition to the supplement One-AC, is the most common treatment – even if the vets shake their heads.
Being the greatest race mare in history isn’t enough for Zenyatta. She also acts as a therapeutic partner for a child with autism, as The Blood-Horse reports.
Step back for a second and consider whether or not you’d just fearlessly walk up to a 17 hand, fighting-fit Thoroughbred racehorse.
And then imagine the 5 year-old boy who does so.
Jack, who has autism and lives, as his father says, “in a distant world,” loves Zenyatta. A lot of us love Zenyatta – but it’s unlikely that she’d allow anyone else the closeness that she affords Jack – not knowing how to pet her, trainer John Shirreffs explains, Jack pokes his finger into her side and screams to express his happiness.
Jack’s father says that just mentioning Zenyatta makes the distant child “glow with happiness and jump up and down.”
Nationally, the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) has more than 6,300 equines on its rosters, from minis to mules and every sort of breed in between, and in 2009 NARHA organizations assisted more than 40,000 participants. Interestingly, autism was the number one special need served by NARHA centers. Rapidly growing in diagnosis and still a mystery in its many forms, children with autism seem especially attuned to horses – and horses to them.
Zenyatta’s acceptance of this little boy in her life is just one more example of that old saying: horses know.
Where was this book when I was a kid?
All I ever wanted was a good racing story, that might explain to me the very adult world of horse racing, always with its door closed to children. We were relegated to velvet hunt caps, tasteful make-up, and “natural” obstacles. I wanted rainbow silks, dirt in my face, and a clear path to the wire.
The books I had were the classics, and I memorized them even as I bemoaned either their age (Black Gold and Come on, Seabiscuit! were amazing history lessons, but I wanted to know what racing life was like now!) I was always a skeptical child, and knew the Jockey Club would never have permitted the Black to race, and certainly not to enter the Stud Book. (One might say the same thing of The Pie.) I wanted reality, I wanted some glimpse of the real thing, that storied world I wasn’t allowed to enter, not more history, not more fantasy, and certainly not more boys. Surely Velvet Brown wasn’t the only girl that dreamed of galloping a fast horse?
At last, The Sweet Running Filly is the book I was looking for.
First published in 1971, and set in southern Ohio, everything about this book rings true, right down to the very skillful country voice that the narration and dialogue is written in. Oh sure, there are stereotypical characters – the scar-faced trainer that specializes in cheap claimers, the African American groom that knows all the native flora and fauna and uses them in his secret remedies to keep the horses going, the wealthy farm owner, etc. But if Dick Francis wrote to a formula, I think we can excuse the authors theirs’. When the characters work, do you really care if you recognize them?
From the opener, at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga, where one very beautiful yearling spooks her way into the sales ring and rockets out again, a sales-topper of The Green Monkey proportions, to the Ohio antiques shop where Julie Jefferson holds up the counter for her father (a man of excellent wit, and their exchanges alone make the book worth your time) to the summer spent starting yearlings and learning to work horses, The Sweet Running Filly captivates – and manages to stay within the realm of reality, a gift for anyone tired of racing fantasy. Even the mystery, during which the main character reinvents herself as Julie Jefferson, Girl Detective, is fast-paced, entertaining, and not so convoluted that we couldn’t have expected her to have figured it out!
And despite the rollicking, quick story, despite the excellent voice and the witty dialogue, what really captures me are the truisms in this book that any horse-crazy girl will see herself in:
“The common belief was that you loved horses because you loved riding. But Julie’s emotions worked the other way. She loved riding because she loved horses. Sitting astride a horse was just one expression of the closeness of two spirits, no more and no less satisfying that playing together in a grassy pasture, nuzzling in a warm, dark stall, hand-walking after a bath to dry out, or grooming on a pair of crossties snapped across a stable aisle.”
The “Bonnie Books” continue with a half-dozen more titles, including the currently available A Horse Called Bonnie. A percentage of sales of these books will be going to Thoroughbred charities, working to improve the lives of retired racehorses. Find out more on Facebook – “The Bonnie Books.” Here it is at Barnes & Noble.com – for only nine dollars.
And – just because you might have missed this one in childhood – don’t miss it now.
The Sweet Running Filly
Barbara Van Tuyl & Pat Johnson
There is news today that perhaps the horsemen have been heard, as the Thoroughbred Times reports that legislation has been introduced in New York to facilitate a transparent new process for approving a racino operator at Aqueduct.
This is just days after the so-called Big A-6 managed to cancel the first race at Aqueduct, boycotting with their six entries, and brought together the racing community at neighboring Belmont for a rally calling upon Albany to stop stalling and give the horsemen what they had been promised: a racino, the chance at renewed purses and breeders’ incentives, the knowledge that the business was not bankrupt and the Thoroughbreds could go on running.
The latest twist in the long plot of the Video Lottery Terminals (VLT) that have been coming to an Aqueduct near you for nine years… and just why do the words Video Lottery Terminals seem so magical to members of the racing industry?
Because they’ve worked before.
As Jay Hovdey points out in his blog at the Daily Racing Form (may require free reg.), the racino is not the silver bullet, and in some locations, the hugely successful casinos are trying to shoulder out the horses or dogs that brought them there in the first place. But they are a start. And with the example of New York’s Standardbred industry – racetracks like Yonkers offering gaming to those looking for quicker pay-outs than what they’d receive from studying the past performances, the track conditions, and the Beyer figures, not to mention the many successful Thoroughbred tracks in the country, from Delaware to Mountaineer Park – the way to saving New York Thoroughbred racing seems clear enough.
And by and large, governments are turning to VLTs and racinos to save themselves from the huge budget shortfalls of the Great Recession. Just today, the New Hampshire Senate passed a bill allowing video lottery in six locations – including three racetracks – with the goal of earning enough to restore cut social services.
The possibility of not just saving the horsemen and the communities around them, but actually making back the money necessary to close New York’s budget gap, rescue NYRA’s signature tracks and races (the Belmont Stakes among them), and creating hundreds of additional jobs in New York City, ought to be too much for the legislators in Albany to turn down. If they can just stand to do something without giving all the deals to their friends, as in the case of the Aqueduct Entertainment Group.
Sen. Marty Golden, (R-Brooklyn) has proposed an open plan to allow an accounting firm to review bids and make a recommendation, and requires the state to review the recommendation publicly within ten days, making a final decision within fifteen days of the public hearing.
Yes, that’s allowing 25 days, assuming the legislation gets through, and bids are made in a timely manner. Fairly speedy, for government. Especially a government that has spent nine years doing – what, exactly? Nine years, nine foal crops, nine summers at Saratoga, a generation of children from kindergarten to high school – nine years of uncertainty for thousands of people in and around the racing business.
The rally at Belmont Park on Sunday afternoon wasn’t about horses. It wasn’t about gambling. It wasn’t about fair labor, or working conditions, or any of the usual suspects that incite workers’ rallies.
It was about the continued survival of a community.
Tens of thousands jobs are on the line, and as New Jersey’s forward-thinking purse initiatives move to make the same sports thefts that have taken New York sports franchises in the past, Albany continues to refuse to make good upon a nine-year-old promise to assign an operator for the much-maligned, sadly hypothetical racino at Aqueduct.
The crowd gathered on the brick apron of Belmont Park, near the finish line of the third leg of the Triple Crown, was as diverse a group as any random population on a crowded city street. It was the eclectic mix that sums up racing life – all classes, clothing, countries. . . hotwalkers, grooms, riders, trainers, breeders. Urban and rural groups together, asking the government for the same thing – and shouldn’t have that made the decision easy? So why has the Aqueduct racino dragged on for nearly a decade, with no end in sight?
There were children in strollers, playing in the grass, bouncing balloons. There were well-dressed owners and trainers with their families. There were state legislators, community leaders, and racing association directors. Many of these people would only have come together because of the incredible diversity of the Thoroughbred industry. They represent in their diversity the many communities that they support.
As the Long Island Railroad trains rattled by beyond the backstretch and the airplanes slowly slid over on their approach to JFK, Matthew Veitch, county supervisor from Saratoga, reminded the crowd that the VLT issues were not strictly an urban, racing plant problem, “not an upstate, downstate problem,” but a whole state issue. Even as letting New York racing fade costs the state millions of dollars, he pointed out, it causes racing to lose both the purses and prestige that have made New York the horseman’s choice for a century and a half.
It also means that upstate, New York’s richest agribusiness is flailing. Joe McMahon (McMahon of Saratoga), spoke of mares bred declining by more than half. Yes, this means few New York-breds competing in three years. It also means that only half of the jobs in the breeding industry and the communities surrounding them will be available in the coming years. Diminished breeding means out of work grooms, blacksmiths, veterinarians, feed dealers, trainers, watchmen. Out-of-work people mean grocers, dry cleaners, restauranteurs, doctors, plumbers get less business. Children eat less, even go hungry. They fail at school. They drop out before they graduate. Generations slip under. When industries are allowed to fail, communities fail.
How many communities will fail if the Thoroughbred industry, from the upstate farms and the brief summers of hospitality at Saratoga, to New York City’s cast of thousands who support the city tracks, to the tens of thousands who depend on these workers’ patronage – how many communities will simply collapse?
All for want of a simple solution that was already promised to the horsemen and workers of New York? A relatively simple system, the development of a racino at a free-standing structure, complete with public transportation, in the nation’s most densely populated urban corridor – they managed it in Louisiana. It is shocking that they can’t manage something so basic in New York.
Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemens’ Association, expressed the fear and frustration of the communities at risk best with his one simple solution: to put the governor and the parties responsible for selecting a VLT in a locked room and to not let them out until a deal has been agreed upon.
The theme of the day was community. The chant of the day was “Real people, real jobs.” The mood of the day was frustration, with an undercurrent of worry, even fear. Real lives, entire communities at stake. And nothing for it but to stand together in one place, and shout, and hope that someone in charge is listening. It isn’t a bad practice; revolutions have been started and been won this way for centuries. The only question is, how many will shout, how loudly, and will it be soon enough to save New York’s racing community and heritage?