Horse Track Blog

Monday, August 21, 2006

Bluegrass Ambassadors

by John Day

Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you are a resident of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, have spent time there, or, have a keen interest in warmbloods. As a proud Bluegrass Ambassador, you must have the following three vital pieces of information about horses:

First, horses have compound eyes rather than complex eyes like humans. When we look at things, we see color, depth and composition. When horses see things, they are more two-dimensional in a rather colorless environment. And, as an object enters their field of vision there is actually a point at which the horse switches from binocular to monocular vision, thus creating a momentary “blind spot:” that often spooks the animal. Horses do not rely on vision for a great deal of the information about their world. In fact, their evolutionary “flight” defense mechanism allows them to outrun the prey and analyze the details later.

Second, horses have small brains. However, it annoys me immensly when folks who wouldn’t know a fetlock from a pastern make the ignorant observation that “horses are stupid.” No, they aren’t stupid…they are instinctual. The term “stupid” implies that they have greater mental capacity than they are utilizing. Horses are hitting on all brain cylinders when they back away from what they perceive as dangerous. To us, a pitchfork is no threat; however, to them, it could be a potentially harmful snake or other adversary until it is determined otherwise.

Third, if you are ever presented with the honor of leading a racehorse ANYWHERE there is a very specific and correct way to handle the animal. Take the leadshank, make a loop with the end of the leather strap, and put your left hand through the loop. Then, take your right hand and grab control of the horse on the leather strap near his lip. That way, if the horse balks, and the rein is pulled from your right hand, you can still have control with the left hand. Loose horses are a danger to themselves and everyone in their path. D. Wayne Lukas’ son, Jeff, was horrifically injured as he courageously and nobly tried to stop a runaway. And, just recently at Churchill Downs, a young filly with a very bright future got loose on the track as she was preparing to breeze, attempted to “flee” back to her stall, and impaled herself on the rail beside the gate. Got your attention? Okay….reins in hand, press your right shoulder against the horse briefly and let him know that you are in control. Horses respond to authority and a chain of command. And, if you are not at the top of that chain, you are in a world of trouble. Give the leadshank a slight tug and let the horse know that you won’t tolerate any foolishness. And, finally, if you are uncomfortable, decline the invitation to lead the valuable animal. Better to have never known that to have known and erred in this case.

My dearest friend in the world gave me a Tony Leonard photograph of Secretariat many years ago. My friend graduated from MIT and lives in a neighboring state. When I lived on Ormsby Street in Old Louisville near the University of Louisville campus, he happened by me as I was sitting on my front porch reading The Daily Racing Form. “What’s that?” he asked innocently. My reply, “This ol’ thing? Why, it’s The Form.‘ Many dollars both won and lost later, he has his own teller at the OTB who knows to punch the tickets exactly as called out. My giving an MIT grad something like The Form like giving crack to an addict. Data be him!! He sees things in the dancing numbers that others would never comprehend.

This same friend called me one Friday evening when I was on the way to a New York Yankees game and said I might want to look at the Claiborne horse, Clash, in the ninth race at Churchill Downs. Putting said horse on top and bottom in the exacta would be prudent, in his opinion. I didn’t bother to visit an OTB, but a $14.20 win mutuel later, I think my friend made some coin that day! Then again, trips are usually worth exactly what they cost.

His spot on gift two decades ago of the Tony Leonard photo of Secretariat greets visitors to my wife’s and my New York home. However, there is a slight problem, as Secretariat’s left rein is perceptibly lower than the right. Clearly, the groom has been airbrushed out of the photo. Nobody who handles horses would allow any thoroughbred to walk unattended while reined. And, that fact is exponentially true of a horse like Secretariat. Weird things happen. The horse could get his leg tangled in the dangling reins. Remember how Alydar died? His leg was broken inside his stall…under somewhat mystifying circumstances. I still can’t believe the insurance company paid that claim.

I happen to be employed in the newspaper business. All media outlets are transmogrifying (with a nod toward the “Calvin and Hobbs” cartoon strip) from television stations, newspapers and magazines into information-delivery properties. That is a huge distinction because it used to be that readers/consumers/customers would go to a trusted source for information. Now? Not so much. Trusted brands are losing ground.

The massive internet search engines have dramatically changed the landscape. A user who is curious can access Google or Yahoo! for information. The media person who is way ahead of the game in terms of comprehending this huge change is Rupert Murdoch. His empire includes BskyB in the UK, Star in China, Fox in America and many newspapers, including my favorite…The New York Post. Page Six alone is worth bookmarking in your browser.

A recent Page Six mentioned Pat Riley, who wass also extensively profiled in the sports section that day. Anytime an NBA coach from another city is mentioned multiple times in different sections, that coach is absolutely big pimpin’. Riley is from upstate New York (so there is something of a local angle here) and he played college basketball under Adolph Rupp. He led the Los Angeles “Showtime” Lakers to multiple NBA titles, took the New York Knicks to the seventh game of the finals in search of the Larry O’Brien trophy, and then, won another title with the Miami Heat last week.

Riley’s beaming smile was broadcast one weekend at the pep rally in South Beach after the Heat championship. His dance moves on the podium were amazing. My Latina wife from the Bronx (who could dance credibly to the rhythm from an electric can opener) blurted out “Check him out! That man can MOVE!” when she saw the clip. That, my friends, is noteworthy praise.

My four older sisters taught me growing up in Kentucky always to dance when the chance presents itself and to dance like nobody’s watching. Pat Riley took that one a step further and learned to dance well. He looked like a man with more Lexington, Kentucky in his blood than Schenectady, New York.

I’d be willing to bet that Pat Riley also knows how to properly lead a racehorse. It is apparent to those of us who take pride in our state and our heritage that Pat Riley was “raised right.” Hats off to a true Bluegrass Ambassador.

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