Last week, I was on vacation in Mexico. Annoying to mention, I know, but it is relevant to the following story. The last night of the trip, my friends and I signed up to do a moonlight beach horseback ride. We are all horse-inclined, and it sounded like a blast.
As we gathered around the bonfire, our gracious and charming guide asked about our lives. Of the four of us, three of us work in the Thoroughbred industry in various capacities. The ranch where we were riding specializes in taking in rescue horses in need of a safe home and a steady job. One of their horses, in fact, used to be a racehorse.
While this was being discussed, I could tell our host was trying to figure out a way to politely phrase a question she thought might offend the group. There was that split second of hesitancy in her eyes and an awkwardness to her movements.
Then the inevitable: "So, how are racehorses treated in the United States?"
Given the very nature of where we were, it was implied that she was curious about what happens to the horses after they race, too. As our group was explaining about efforts from organizations like Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), it occurred to me that this question, which I get fairly regularly, is easier to answer now than it was several years ago.
For example, TAA was created in 2012 to serve as both the accrediting body for aftercare facilities that care for Thoroughbreds following the conclusion of their careers and as a fundraising body to support approved facilities.
"It is our responsibility as owners, tracks, breeders, trainers, jockeys, bloodstock agents, and anyone who has a stake in the game to take responsibility for the aftercare of these great animals who are the keystone of our sport," said TAA Board President and Thoroughbred owner Jack Wolf of Starlight Stables.
TAA wasn't just talk. In 2013, a total of $1 million was granted to 23 approved aftercare organizations.
Another example of a relatively new program is The Jockey Club's Thoroughbred Incentive Program (T.I.P.), which offers sponsorship for Thoroughbred-only classes and divisions, high point Thoroughbred awards at open horse shows and competitions, a Thoroughbred of the Year award and a Young Rider of the Year award. The thought behind T.I.P., which was announced in 2011, is to encourage the retraining of retired Thoroughbreds for second careers.
Initiatives like TAA and T.I.P. are not cure-alls for the problems in the sport, but it sure is nice to be able to point to specific examples of industry-wide efforts to support the sport's voiceless stars.
While it would be easier perhaps if owners, trainers or jockeys could become the stars people care about, it simply doesn't work that way the vast majority of the time. Some people follow the sport because they love the grace of equines; some people follow the sport because they love the skill required to successfully bet on races; but it all comes down to some kind of interest in the horse.
Mere days after that discussion on the beach, the Arlington Million happened. When Hardest Core surged passed 2013 Breeders' Cup Turf winner Magician to win the Grade 1 race, a storyline emerged that serves as a reminder of the best part of our sport.
Hardest Core was supposed to be a steeplechaser, not the winner of one of America's most historic races. He almost died when he was gelded but fought back after having to have 18 feet of intestine removed. He was purchased as a gift for Andrew Bentley, who has Down syndrome. From all accounts, the horse is surrounded by good guys in the game, even if they were far from mainstream names before Saturday.
Watching the celebration of that highly unlikely victory was soothing to the soul. When the game is right, it is very right. For just a minute, when faced with all that joy, all the arguing and issues surrounding the sport faded to the background.
Horse racing will always have those who believe it should cease to exist. But many more people are like our guide in Mexico: open to the idea of horse racing but only if they are secure in knowing the horses are treated well.
The sport certainly has its issues, but it is important to also stop and acknowledge the good that has been done. Not giving credit where credit is due is just as aggravating as complaining about something without offering a solution. It can also be just as disheartening.
So for the good guys out there -- from the men and women behind horses like Hardest Core who quietly go about doing the right thing, to those who make sure horses are treated well when their racing days are done, and to everyone in between working to make horse racing better -- thank you.