Spring is officially here. No, it’s not the Spring Equinox; that was March 20, in case you missed it. To me, the official start of spring is always the first Saturday in May – Kentucky Derby week. This edition of The Post comes out on Derby Day, so let’s talk about it.
Being a weekly newspaper, it is hard to discuss the race itself in advance, because I write my columns on Wednesdays. New digital extensions we are working on will solve that problem, but in the meantime, let’s take a bigger-picture look at Derby Day.
Derby Day is absolutely glorious when the sun is out. Like spring, it is often raining. Maybe that’s why all the women there wear crazy hats. My wife (half) jokingly has always said that she has no interest in going to the Derby because she is not a hat person. Women!
As many of you know, I have been a horse breeder and farmer almost as long as I have been a newspaper publisher. My wife and I started the newspaper in 1975 and I bought my first racehorse in 1977. That led to wanting to learn to take care of them, which led me to building a 30-acre farm, which grew over the years to a 260-acre farm. I breed them, foal them and raise them myself, so I am an avid horse lover. My kids were all raised on the farm.
My son, Mike, now the Post publisher, learned to be the relentless hard worker he is today by cleaning stalls with Dad. A horse farm is a wondrous place.
So, you might think that our reader poll question I picked for this week is a bit surprising: Should horse racing be banned? Yes, it is cruel to the animals just like the old circus; or No, running is what horses do, we should just be more careful.
What led me to ask that kind of question on Derby Day? I do not know who will win, but I am predicting that a whole lot of the television shows this weekend will be discussing the recent rash of horse deaths in the thoroughbred racing world. Particularly at Santa Anita Downs in California, where 21 horses died over the winter.
My disclaimer has already been made. I am in the horse racing business, so I am not an unbiased writer on this subject. My horses are standardbreds, however (harness racing, they pull a sulky like at Northfield Park). There is a huge difference between the two; standardbreds are much stronger and more durable (they usually end up pulling Amish buggies when they retire). Yet even in standardbreds, there is debate on the subject.
I became interested in racehorses when, as a kid, I used to go to Thistledown and the old Randall Park with my own dad on his day off from the grocery store. I got hooked on the sport, even more so when we began visiting Northfield to watch the harness racing. Horse racing was a big deal then and the grandstands were full. It was exciting, but so was the circus at one time.
Over the years of raising them, I became much more of just a lover of the animals themselves and less of the racing. Even in harness racing, I have long been a proponent of eliminating whipping. I don’t use them at my farm, even when breaking them. I also support the Hay, Oats and Water alliance, which believes that is all that horses should be allowed to race on. This is the real crux of the problem.
If this policy was adhered to, and medications such as lasix (for lung bleeding) was banned, a lot of horses would not be able to race. That is the big objection that has kept my idea from happening. But to that I say, “good!” The races will just go slower. That is better for the horses, anyway. Kind of like in baseball, there are lot less homers when you ban steroids – but so what?
I have boarded some thoroughbreds from time to time and I can tell you that they are a different deal all together. I love watching the Triple Crown races like The Derby, but from firsthand experience, I can tell you that breed has become so delicate, so nervous, so reactive to stress that I believe they have a big problem.
It is to the point where even I think that horse racing has to change or eventually groups like PETA will convince the public to shut down racing. That would be very sad for me. But horses dying is sad for me also. I hope the thoroughbred industry comes to their senses and makes rule changes that are more respectful of these magnificent wonders of God and nature.