“Thoroughbred” refers to a special breed of horses developed three centuries ago in England, and widely used in America for racing. One of the premier places to watch them, and perhaps one of the most beautiful, is at Keeneland. Opened 75 years ago right outside Lexington, Kentucky (making it convenient for me to visit last Wednesday), it’s a lovely track set among lush, white-fenced horse pastures where the animals are bred and trained.
Only Thoroughbreds race at Keeneland, and there are only two racing seasons per year: April and October. Fortunately, I was there during one of them, and my hosts at the University kindly used their influence to get me not only a special lunch in the clubhouse overlooking the track, but a box seat in the Gaines Family box. (“Gaines” was a famous brand of dog food, and how the family became wealthy. I believe the company is defunct, and the family is involved in breeding and racing horses.)
Lunch was preceded in the clubhouse (paid for by a kindly donor) along with five “Gaines fellows”, undergrads chosen by the Gaines Center to undergo a special training program including local outreach, lots of exposure to the arts, and a long senior thesis.
Coats and ties only here, and though it was raining, and the coat of the fellow to my left was soaked, they made him wear it anyway! I’m hefting a shot of bourbon, de rigueur for a pre-race tipple.
Luncheon was a good slice of Kentucky gentility:
. . . .and was ended by pecan pie à la mode, prepared in a skillet and liberally doused with whipped cream (note to health-concerned readers: this was not my dessert):
Before each race, the horses for that race are brought out into the “paddock”, a grassy area where they are paraded around so those who wager on the races can get a good look at them. (I think it also warms them up a bit and calms them down.) They are beautiful animals, with glossy, muscled flesh and very thin legs (more on that below). They are racing machines, artificially selected for one thing only: to run fast. Look how thin the legs and ankles of this beast are:
The saddles are put on in the paddock, and then the horses are moved to an adjacent plot of grass where they’re quickly mounted by the jockeys.
Jockeys, of course, are small guys: you don’t want a lot of weight on a horse that needs to run fast to win. Here’s one “jock”:
Here’s our box. If you click to enlarge, you’ll see that it’s owned by the Gaines family. The track, a mile and 1/16 long, is in the background. The stands are built only along the “home stretch” flanking the finish line.
Before the race the horses parade up and down the track, probably an additional form of warm-up. Each horse has a “guide” horse to calm it and lead it to the starting gate. They’re also trotted around a bit.
Very quickly, the horses are stuffed into the mobile starting gate, one by one, and the gates closed. Once they’re all in, a bell rings and they’re off!
These things can cover ground fast: they run about 35-40 miles per hour, which may be close to the maximum attainable for one of these beasts, since times haven’t improved over the last few decades. (In contrast, humans can attain only about 27 miles per hour over very short distances.)
Here’s a finish: the white post takes a photo to determine the winner in a close race. A video board showing the race, from start to finish (since you can’t see the horses on the far side of the track), is behind the post.
VIDEO! Here’s the finish of the sixth race. This is the first video I’ve ever taken and posted!
After the race horses return to the track entry, cooling down. The jockeys dismount and the saddles are taken off. I was interested to see that during the race, the jockeys never actually sit on the horse; they “stand” in the saddle.
The track is not dirt, but is an artificial composite material that looks like shredded plastic or rubber. It’s dragged smooth by tractors after each race.
Thoroughbreds have health issues, particularly orthopedic ones. A huge, muscular animal runs on very thin legs and ankles, and this causes fractures. Sadly, one horse broke its leg near the finish. The authorities clearly knew what to do: a man was on the spot in seconds, lifting the injured leg to prevent further damage:
Animal-rights groups have denounced the high rate of injury among Thoroughbreds. A damaged leg is a very serious injury; as Wikipedia notes:
The level of treatment given to injured Thoroughbreds is often more intensive than for horses of lesser financial value but also controversial, due in part to the significant challenges in treating broken bones and other major leg injuries. Leg injuries that are not immediately fatal still may be life-threatening because a horse’s weight must be distributed evenly on all four legs to prevent circulatory problems, laminitis, and other infections. If a horse loses the use of one leg temporarily, there is the risk that other legs will break down during the recovery period because they are carrying an abnormal weight load. While horses periodically lie down for brief periods of time, a horse cannot remain lying in the equivalent of a human’s “bed rest” because of the risk of developing sores, internal damage, and congestion.
A “horse ambulance” quickly arrived, with two men holding a large canvas cover on two poles. At first I thought this was some kind of stretcher, but I later realized that horses can sometimes be euthanized on the track if the injury is too severe, and I suspect the cover is to shield that operation from the spectators:
This was terribly sad, especially given the statistics that 10% of all Thoroughbreds suffer an orthopedic injury during their racing lives. Fortunately, this horse wasn’t killed in situ, but put into the “equine ambulance” and driven away. I wonder if it survived.
Despite the sadness, it was interesting to see a slice of life that was completely new to me. Thanks to the people at the Gaines Foundation, Robert Rabel, a board member, and the Gaines family for making our visit possible.