Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Racehorse Welfare from Starting Gate to Finish Line

While he's employed as an athlete, your average racehorse will traditionally receive top-notch care from a variety of racetrack professionals. He gets a trainer dedicated to enhancing his fitness through closely monitored exercise and adroit nutritional calculations. He gets a veterinarian who monitors stiffness, soreness, and medicinal needs. And he gets a swath of grooms and caretakers that cater to his gleaming appearance and regimented feeding/bathing/training schedule.

Difficulties can arise, however, surrounding the subject of his welfare, both prior to his first stint at the in-gate (if he's pushed too hard early on while training), and after he crosses his final finish line (when he enters the wide unknown of his retirement). Debates have long raged over whether a horse should be raced while still a juvenile because his youthful two-year-old frame may not be physically developed enough to withstand the rigors of the activity. And once a horse reaches the end of his usefulness as a racehorse, if he is not funneled into one of the retirement systems that exist in the country, he likely faces a very perilous road with an inglorious ending.

When I read, therefore, of professionals in the industry working to mitigate these risks by questioning outdated standards and practices, or stepping up to advocate for a horse who's down on his luck, I feel compelled to report on the work being done. I was greatly interested by a recent article at The Saratogian concerning the trend towards increasing racehorse career longevity by delaying the start of a horse's racing until its three-year-old year. This gives the horse more opportunity to mature into an athlete, and as the amaz-a-mare Zenyatta can attest, can have a marked positive impact on its long term success. (The only caveat is if you are looking to campaign your horse in the Derby, as no unraced two-year-old has ever gone on to win the roses at three.) This slow shift away from racing history's precedent of heavy two-year-old campaigns implies to me that the industry is racing smarter and with more regard for the individual training and developmental needs of each horse.

And while a great deal more industry prominence has been given to the issue of Thoroughbred retirement in the last few years, there are still owners and trainers who continue to race a horse past its prime. In these instances the horse risks breakdown or severe injury as his athletic demands outpace his declining fitness or increasing age. It some instances it becomes the responsibility of a hawk-eyed bystander to intercede before the horse can meet such a fate. So it was with Delta Storm, a multiple graded-stakes winner and 2009 Breeder's Cup Sprint contender, whose career earnings exceeded $500,000. By June, 2010 he had somehow fallen precipitously through the race grade ranks and ended up in a $3,200 claiming race. As the Paulick Report explains, it was there that he caught the eye of Sharla Sanders and The Second Race retirement organization. The Second Race stepped in, took ownership of Delta Storm and shipped him to a long term care facility where he will be fully retired. Considering that his trainer Steve Myadi was "unapologetic" about the decision to race Delta Storm at the very lowest ranks, those responsible for ensuring his safety and seeing to his retirement were very certainly in the right place at the right time. Who knows how Delta Storm may have ended up had he proved unsuccessful as a claimer.

I am glad to see industry participants continuing to advocate for the Thoroughbreds and challenging the status quo when neccesary. Every horse that makes it through his career without injury or breakdown and goes on to a fulfilling life post-racing is a success story.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Weekend Reader

Just wanted to make a suggestion to all of you in the NYC area if you are looking for a horsey good time to fill your weekend. My sweetie was kind enough to surprise me with tickets last weekend to Cavalia, the Cirque Du Soleil type equestrian show now happening at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. I had read about Cavalia in one of my many equine mags some time ago, and was greatly impressed by its director's outlook on training horses in a way that truly allows their spirit and personalities to shine through in their performances. Each vignette in the show features 1 or more of the animals performing either under saddle or at liberty. To augment the horses one gets to see some pretty amazing human acrobatics often occurring overhead. There is a lot of aerial work, as well as vaulting acts which utilize the horses in some pretty death defying ways!

The amazing thing about the show is that it features 26 stallions, who seem to get along quite harmoniously during their performances. The cast is rounded out by 35 or so additional geldings, but I could still anticipate that there might be a fair bit of squabbling that could ensue if the horses were not so highly and adeptly engaged with their trainers. One of the stallions is a big, dark bay Lusitano who truly captivates his audience as he performs a dreamy higher level dressage performance that showcases the fire and energy of the Spanish/Portuguese breeds. His presence in the arena is mesmerizing...and that mane!!

My favorite vignette occurs near the end, when a large group of grey horses representing several different breeds (Spanish PRE, Arabian, Lusitano), is galloped into the performance arena for a fascinating at-liberty performance. The performance part of it was not what fascinated - at least for me. It was watching the 12 or so assembled horses interacting as a herd, biting, nipping, kicking and often intently focused on establishing their pecking order as the audience looked on. When the female trainer of the horses bid her group perform, they did so, and relatively flawlessly. But when she left them to mingle and linger amongst one another, their very natural herd dynamics began to assert themselves. Interestingly it was the younger male horses who were giving the rest of the group the most trouble. They were very obviously trying their best to show all assembled that they could be boss. For some reason these very normal, natural behaviors captivated me arguably more than the rigorous under saddle exercises that were featured in other parts of the show.

Overall I highly recommend Cavalia, for anyone who wants to while away an evening in complete awe of the beauty and athleticism of the equine. To enhance the experience, a performance goer can upgrade their seats at the venue for a special "meet the cast" horse lover's package, that provides backstage (back-stall) access. We unfortunately had a bus to catch back to Manhattan, or we would have done it. It's a great opportunity for all ages, and all levels of equine enthusiast (my BF, who has only ridden a horse one time, had an arguably better time than I did because he had never before experienced the wealth of grace, power and physical prowess that one witnesses when watching such a tremendous group of equines).

So get your tickets and go!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Back in the Saddle

The Equine Reader is back!

My surgery went well, as did my trip to the Dominican Republic and its attendant beach gallops along the expansive Punta Cana coast. The horses in DR were scrawny and poorly shod, but that didn't stop them from seeming exhilarated as they hurtled along beneath us down the beautiful surf sides. My poor boyfriend, himself not a rider and ill-prepared for the bumping potential of a full, flying gallop (I'll admit I omitted that detail when plying him with the fun that stood to be had by driving 40 minutes from our comfortable resort into the Domincan countryside and mounting up), took away a few more painful memories than I did, but all in all we enjoyed our encounters with les caballos Domincanos.

When not galloping through the waves our group ambled beneath palm trees along winding country roads. It was here that I was interested to discover that our lithe mounts traveled in some sort of undefinable gait, leading me to believe that they were Spanish or Peruvian "paso" type horses. I attempted to ask my guide if they were Paso Finos but he didn't fully take my meaning in English and I don't possess enough Spanish to discuss the intricacies of Domincan breeding. When we returned to the barn I did notice that, cordoned off from the skinny little horses that we trekked along on, were two stunning Andalusians in gleaming physical condition. Obviously the owners invested greater care into maintaining their personal stock than those reserved for the Gringos, but Spanish imports were clearly the mount of choice for riders in DR. Regardless, I got a fantabulous riding experience and would certainly recommend it to future travelers.

While I was on my writing hiatus, New York saw the running of the Belmont Stakes, in yet another year devoid of a potential Triple Crown sweep. This year's Belmont winner, Drosselmeyer, took first place under the tutelage of trainer Billy Mott. Though I was enjoying a romantic picnic in Central Park when the race went off, I may still get to see Drosselmeyer in action because this year's Travers Stakes could place all three of this year's Triple Crown race winners in contention. This is a compelling marketing idea if ever there was one; people like a rivalry, and how better to draw eyeballs than to feature a score settling match up between the holders of this year's Crown jewels?

Here's to the start of summer in the City, a season much too short but peppered with lots of opportunities for horse-enhanced fun. Saratoga, the Hamptons Classic, Polo at Governer's Island, all lie ahead for the horse lover to enjoy.