As in real life, things in The Sport of Kings can change fast. We have the highest highs and lowest lows, and you can go from one end of the spectrum to the other in a flash. Regardless of what position in the game you play, this is an inherent risk. Whether you are a breeder, owner, trainer, rider, bettor, or work or play in any other area of this great game, this is a reality.
This past week we were served a hard cold reminder of this fact. Just a few short weeks ago we were basking in the glory of the splendid three year old filly Lady Eli. She had won The Belmont Oaks in a romp, in fast time, and established herself as a special horse whose best was surely to come. She was the rave of racing, which following the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years just a few weeks earlier, says a lot of how highly regarded this filly is. Just fourteen days later, stepping on a nail has her fighting for her life and her racing career almost an afterthought.
Laminitis is a devastating disease. There are not many worse diagnoses for a racehorse. Receiving the best care the world has to offer, and fighting valiantly with tremendous courage and resolve is no guarantee of a horse overcoming this condition. I can think of no greater example than Barbaro and the fight he put up. It’s a tricky and complicated cruel disease made worse by the biological make up of a thoroughbred.
For those who don’t know laminitis is an inflammation of tissue (laminae) inside the hoof of horses and other animals. It is very similar to the nail of a human. The nail would act as the hoof and the tissue under the nail would be the laminae. We all know how sensitive the tissue under our nails is. Any problem involving it is painful. Can you imagine if this was a weight bearing area? Worse yet if it bore in excess of 1000 pounds. This is what our horses are faced with when stricken. It can be caused by trauma and stress and also by favoring one leg over another. There are other causes as well. Often when one hoof is affected the other one also becomes affected as a result of favoring the bad leg. It’s a vicious cycle.
It was reported Lady Eli stepped on a nail, and that led to laminitis in one hoof initially, and ultimately in both front hooves. Two serious complications of the disease are the turning down of the bone in the hoof, which can even protrude, and separation of the hoof wall. At least we know Lady Eli is in the best hands possible. She’ll be given every possible chance to beat this, and she is surrounded by a team, led by Chad Brown her trainer, who genuinely love her. The scary thing about this filly was, we weren’t even close to seeing her best. She was undefeated and dominant, but just coming into herself and “getting good.” Who knows, being by Divine Park, who was a Chester House that won the Met Mile, she might have been just as good as she was on turf, on dirt. Scary indeed. Let’s keep her and her connections in our prayers.
It seemed like the hits just kept on coming this past week. We also lost last year’s Eclipse Award winning turf horse, Main Sequence, to a career ending injury. California Chrome is also out for the year and maybe for good, due to a reported bone bruise. It’s a constant reminder of how tough a game this is.
You also have to feel for Rajiv Maragh. In the midst of fighting his way back from a badly broken arm, Rajiv had another fall and broke his T5 and T6 vertebrae according to his Twitter feed and is now in another battle to get back. Riding horses is a tough game and thinking about Rajiv and his misfortune reminded me of how tough it can be and of a prelude of sorts I wrote to my tribute to Juan Saez. I thought this might be an appropriate time to share it again.
Suppose there was a job for you. A job dangerous enough that an ambulance would follow you around at work. Dangerous enough that you will have a hard time getting health insurance. Life insurance? Well most agents will laugh at you. You’d have to work pretty much seven days a week, including holidays. There is no paid vacation, no vacation at all actually. You’ll have no sick days either. You won’t have a contract, or any guarantee. If you do get sick, or worse hurt, you may lose all the business you have worked for and built up. Accordingly, you can expect to work sick and even hurt. You won’t know how much money you will make either, it can be a lot, if you are consistently among the best at what you do. If you slack however, or have a lot of off days you won’t make much money at all; however, the danger and all those other perks will remain constant. You’ll have to pretty much give up normal meals. Your weight will be monitored to the pound closer than a Cirque De Solei dancer. Words like flipping, purging, and puking will be part of your regular vocabulary. Although you will have to watch every morsel of food, you will also have to stay very fit and in top shape always. Your days will start before the sun rises and finish as it sets but you will still need to find time to work out. After all, you will be expected to control, with precision, animals racing in close quarters at high speeds, that weigh 1100 or 1200 pounds more than you do. Yes, some of them can be wild and unpredictable.
You will always have to watch your liver and kidneys. Besides being banged around constantly, your diet and lifestyle are not very conducive to their staying healthy. You’ll have to be resourceful too, like thinking of things like driving to and from work in a sweat suit with the heat blasting. You have to keep those pounds off. Napping whenever you have 15 minutes will sound like a great idea with your grinding schedule and there is no off season. If you are not used to almost constant criticism it would be a good idea to become very familiar with it. You will be second guessed all the time for split second decisions you make almost instinctively. People who have never dieted, let alone sat on a racehorse, will call you names and blame you for their losing bets. Trainers will be your best friends when you win but some won’t even let you bring donuts by the barn when you lose.
Despite all this, you will have one of the most rewarding careers in the world. You will regularly be at one with the graceful, magnificent and majestic thoroughbred racehorse. You’ll be cheered, revered, and respected by your peers and those who know and understand the Sport of Kings. Those same people who jeered you when you lost will applaud you and marvel at your skill when you win. You will be a fierce competitor and part of a fraternity and family that you will never leave. You, at all of a hundred and ten pounds, will be pound for pound one of the strongest athletes in the world. You’ll be part of history and greatness. You’ll strive to participate in the greatest two minutes in sports, The Kentucky Derby, and who knows, you may even win it. It doesn’t sound so bad all of a sudden.
Speaking of riders, Norberto Arroyo, an extremely talented jockey, was in the process of trying to work his way back to a major circuit. It was never his talent or ability on a horse that was in question, as he has been successful wherever he has ridden, including the toughest circuits in the country. Unfortunately, like many young riders, and people in general, Norberto made some poor choices that resulted in legal problems that hindered his licensing in certain states. Drugs can be a tough challenge for a young man. And a credit to Norberto, he fought his battle and won. Since being licensed, he’s had no positive tests or drug related setbacks.
Norberto started his career riding in New York where he was from. He saw immediate success and kept on even after losing his bug. He’s won Graded Stakes races like The Sport Page Handicap, The Rare Treat Handicap, The Next Move Handicap, The Queens County Handicap, The Excelsior Breeders’ Cup Handicap, The Long Island Handicap, The Lanes End Stakes, The Withers Stakes, The Genuine Risk, The Aqueduct Handicap, The Bed O Roses, and the Nassau County. He also finished third in the 2005 Belmont Stakes to Afleet Alex aboard the 20-1 maiden Nolan’s Cat for Ken Ramsey. Make no mistake, Norberto can ride. He deserves another chance in the big leagues and we are hopeful he will get one.
Unfortunately setbacks don’t only come on the racetrack. Just the other day the house Norberto was renting in Kentucky for him and his family burned down. Fortunately, he and his children were not home. The family lost everything though. Devastating for anyone but more so for someone fighting to rebuild. A friend of Norberto’s set up an account to help get him back on his feet and we are happy to include a link to it here “Gofundme” for any so inclined to help out another fighting race tracker, and an extremely talented jockey, who will be in the winner’s circle again soon.
Talking horses is one of my favorite things to do, right up there with going after a pick 6. I’ve had some great conversations with jockeys and trainers in my life, but I must say, listening to the At The Races show with Steve Byk and Richard Migliore today was one great racing conversation. It was primarily about race riding and the differences between aggressive riding and carelessness. If you did not catch it, it’s well worth listening to the archive. Great talk. Loved it.
None. We’ve had enough this week. Everyone gets a pass.