Thursday, September 6, 2007

Spin Is Everywhere

Seems I can't stop thinking of horses this week. One more post about horseracing and I think I'll be fine.

Starr Ann and I weren't satisfied with hotwalking and grooming for long. We really got the itch to gallop horses. Just about everybody does. So one summer we took jobs at a small training center, where the foreman promised us he'd throw us up on some horses in exchange for taking slightly less in pay. Sounded like a great deal to us.

We worked for several weeks, and hadn't been on one single horse yet. We watched the exercise riders and memorized every move they made. We got them to show us how to cross reins, how to set stirrups, how to distribute our weight in the saddle.

Finally, out of the blue one morning the foreman, Bruce, told me I'd be galloping Compact Lady. I'll never forget her name. I had to borrow a helmet from my friend Luis. It was too big for me and kind of clunked around on my head, but my adrenaline was firing like crazy and I barely noticed the discomfort.

Bruce said to gallop her around once, and watch out for her little trick. She enjoyed trying to flick off her rider by snapping a quick sidestep when you least expected. That first day, Compact Lady was a perfect lady indeed. Piece of cake. Same with the second day.

On the third day, Bruce said to take her around twice. I was really starting to enjoy my two thrilling minutes each morning and doubling the pleasure was a welcome idea. Only thing was, my legs weren't quite fit for galloping yet and by that third day, they were mighty sore. The first time around the track was okay, but about a quarter of the way around that second time, my legs were done for. Well, horses know when they have the advantage. One minute Compact Lady and I were sailing along in harmony, and then she did her whiplash trick. Don't ask me how, but I ended up on my belly, stretched out over her rear end, gripping the back of that tiny saddle. And the filly was picking up speed.

Did I mention that this rinky dink training track didn't have a rail? Nope. They had laid a dirt oval around a bean field. At the end of summer, that field had been harvested and it was full of spiky stalk stubble. In the fraction of a second I was still holding onto that saddle, I realized I had to let go before Compact Lady decided to cut across those stalks. The dirt would make for a much nicer landing.

I let go and fell flat on my stomach and chest, knocking all my wind out. The second I hit I knew I wasn't hurt, but I couldn't pull enough air to get up. What I didn't think about was that helmet. Being too big for me, it had twisted on my head at a real awkward angle.

Well, Starr Ann had been watching from up in a tiny wooden observation tower beside the track. She saw me fall and just lay there with my head looking like my neck had to be broken, broken bad. They said she knocked two other grooms out of her way getting down the stairs. She ran across the track and when she got to me, she grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me like a ragdoll. If my neck had been broken, Starr Ann would have finished me off for sure. That was one of only two times in my whole life I've ever seen Starr Ann hysterical.

Here's the other time.

We don't have a television, so some friends invited us over to watch Barbaro's Preakness. Starr Ann was in the kitchen during part of the post parade. They had the camera on Barbaro a lot and I noticed that the jockey had looked back at the horse's right hind a couple of times. I called Starr Ann to come look. Sure enough, the next time they put number 6 in the lens, there was the jockey, looking back again. Only this time, he had raised out of the saddle and leaned out, where he could get a good look at the lower right hind.

Now, a world class jockey like that is an extension of the horse's body. Every detail of the track's condition, how the horse is putting its feet down, any minute sign of being "off" transmits directly up to the jockey's brain.

Starr Ann and I warned everybody else at the party that the big horse of the day might end up not running. We were that convinced, that early, that Barbaro's jockey was detecting a problem.

It was a good thing I called Starr Ann when I did, because somebody at the network must have seen what we were seeing and the camera stayed well away from the favorite after that.

Then as they loaded the gate, we all know Barbaro came crashing out alone, ahead of time. First thing you have to guess drives a classy horse like that to make a move so green is pain. Starr Ann and I had no doubt the stewards would scratch at that point.

Turned out scratching was never on the table, though.

In the space of about ten minutes, a lot of people failed that horse. What a spot for a jockey to find himself in. Derby winner, heavy favorite, huge stakes. You can see him picturing the end of his career if he made the call to scratch and ended up looking like a fool. Same for the vet that okayed him back into the gate. Same for everybody. The moment was so overblown and surreal.

And surreal is the only way to describe how Starr Ann and I felt when we realized they were still going to send him.

As everybody knows, they reloaded him and his race lasted about two seconds.

That was the second time in my life I've seen Starr Ann hysterical. But I only saw her like that for a second, as I ran from the room. To this day, I haven't seen the footage of the breakdown and I hope I never do.

The spin began almost immediately. The network had enough real horse people on hand to know what really transpired out there. But they cannonized the jockey on the spot and skillfully reshaped the whole thing into the huge spectacle it became in the months to follow. Spin is everywhere. Our society expects it.

Today, neither Starr Ann nor I see this affair in the blacks and whites that we did those first few days. Another Ruffian-effect would have caused a lot of horses a lot of suffering. In the end, the truly honorable efforts of the owners and trainer have been beneficial. They've had a positive effect on horse slaughter legislation and raised big money for laminitis research. Those are good outcomes.

But the failures of the moment were a shame.