Thoroughbreds and Blackguards

Inside the sordid world of horse racing

There is no doubt that the horse suffers keenly from a stiff application of the ‘whip’—actually a leaded, ramrod sort of instrument capable of raising great welts. He remembers it, too. One of them remembered it on a spring day at Lexington when, being led to his stable there after having raced through the winter at New Orleans, he spied, lying on the ground, a Negro jockey who had given him a particularly vicious clouting in a race on the Lexington track the previous autumn. Rearing, the horse came down with both forefeet on the boy’s chest.

Fred Taral, premier jockey of the nineties, had good reason to know that the great Domino remembered his whip. A most complacent horse in his younger days, Domino always became so infuriated at the sight of Taral, after that rider’s cruel finish in the dead-heat match with Dobbins, that it was necessary to blindfold the horse whenever Taral mounted him afterward, and eventually he was retired to the stud farm with a reputation as a savage. He wanted to bite and kick everyone in sight. But within a fortnight after his arrival there he discovered that he was in friendly hands and became the gentlest of animals.

It is significant that the most conspicuously successful horseman on the American turf in the last two or three decades, John E. Madden, compels the riders of a majority of his horses to go to post without whip of any kind. When Mr. Madden boosted Winnie O’Conner into the saddle on Yankee in the Futurity, that jockey insisted on having a whip. ‘Well, if you must,’ said the whimsical Madden, and, going to a near-by tree in the paddock, stripped off a switch about three inches long and handed it to the jockey. O’Conner threw it down in disgust, went out, and won the Futurity. He admitted afterward that with a whip he probably would have lost the race in the tight finish.

Riders seldom seem to realize that a horse may be as anxious to win as they, and may know a great deal more about it. At least four jockeys who rode Exterminator during that horse’s notable campaign have told me that the easiest way to win a race on him was to let him win it himself. Application of the whip to force him to ‘make his run’ before he was ready had almost no effect. When the proper time came he went for his prey, and usually got it. I am quite sure that no person in grandstand or paddock had any keener thrill of competition than Exterminator and Boniface themselves had when those two old Trojans hooked up in their several historic stretch-duels.

The cruelties to crippled horses, particularly observed on the steeplechase courses, are even less understandable. Visitors to New York tracks must often have seen a horse led for a long distance, sometimes completely across the infield and out of sight, hobbling along in obvious pain on a leg that has been injured, perhaps broken. There is but one remedy for a race horse with a broken leg—quick death. And lest the finer sensibilities of the spectators be offended by the sight of it, he must hobble off in misery to a less conspicuous spot for the execution!

Occasionally, however, the break is at the hip, leaving the cripple powerless to move. It was in such an instance two years ago that a novice was sent to the infield with a pistol to dispatch a horse, at the finish of a big steeplechase stake. On the third shot, after two misplaced bullets had had no greater effect than to regale the crowd with the spectacle of a wounded and crippled horse trying to defend himself against a man with a pistol, he was finally put away.

Even bullfight audiences, rapacious as they are for gore, cheering when sharp horns sink into the flesh of a blindfolded horse, will not tolerate a prolongation of the poor animal’s pain, once the bull has struck. In Seville you will see a perfect barrage of bottles from the gallery when a picador’ attempts to remount a wounded horse. It is not pleasant to think we are less humane than they. Eventually, perhaps, all tracks will have ambulances, as some now have, equipped with slings and other appliances to lift an injured horse from the ground and bear him painlessly away.

The question of whether the entire steeplechase-game is not too cruel to justify its existence is not so easily answered. I may only say that the frequent falls and injuries make the watching of it an unpleasant duty for me. But at least our most hazardous courses in this country are smooth lawns compared with the course for the annual world-classic at Liverpool, the Grand National, where only three or four horses finish from a field of thirty or more—the others left scattered about the course, a panorama of bruised bodies, twisted legs, and broken necks.

But whether it be fiat racing or steeplechasing, it is not the unavoidable casualty that is most bewildering - it is the premeditated cruelty. It is the assumption that ownership of horses carries the privilege of treating them with the same mechanical consideration that would be given to a racing-automobile; the cruel custom of racing-associations in permitting tracks to become hard as flint, jarring the horses from hoof to mane so that an amazingly small percentage of them stand up under two seasons of racing, presumably for no other reason than that hard tracks mean sensational track-records and therefore front-page publicity; the patching and repatching of the stove-up victims of these hard tracks, in an effort to ‘get one more race’ out of them; the practice of ‘nerving’ horses; a neat operation which kills all pain in an infirm foot by the simple expedient of removing the nerve, and does no harm—until the nerved parts rot and the unfortunate animal throws his foot completely off, perhaps in the midst of a race.

Strangely enough, the one offense which racegoers and racing-officials are least willing publicly to accept, and which trainers most vigorously deny, is one of the most common and, to some limits, the most defensible. I refer to the use of stimulants.

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