I spent a glorious day at Keeneland on Saturday--my first-ever Keeneland raceday. I had a wonderful time: the horses were gorgeous; the people were as psyched as I. I even ran into friends and colleagues I'd not seen since Saratoga--a particular delight. I got a hug from Nuno Santos, the gifted rider from California who rode Champions Azeri and Ghostzapper (to name a few). Watching Nuno ride a horse is like watching liquid poetry. I'd not expected to see him in Kentucky, of all places, so it was a particular treat to see his handsome face on the patio at Keeneland.
And that patio! It's beautiful! If you're not familiar, at the northern end of the grandstand area, in the back, is a gorgeous area with white metal tables and chairs, and a jumbotron. From this sweet setting one can watch the horses as they walk from their barns to the paddock; grab a bite; meet new folks and watch the races on the big screen or easily walk to the rail for live action.
Everything was perfect, except one little thing.
And that thing isn't so little.
Artificial racing surface.
The debate has raged on. I, like many fans, have maintained my stance that dirt must be better for horses than Polytrack, or any other artificial surface.
Horses have been running their brains out on dirt for millions of years. Whether on a track or in the Arizona desert--horses actually evolved with dirt under their fingernails.
And now the report in last week's "Thoroughbred Times" that, just as we'd all predicted--the difference between fatal breakdowns on artificial and dirt is barely noticeable. Millions--probably billions--of dollars spent by tracks and racing associations around the country, and it's just not worth it. My argument--and that of many others--has been that, while artificial may not produce the actual dust that dirt throws off--we don't know what the chemicals in that product can do to a horse's lungs, heart, eyes. Like asbestos, silently inflicting mesothelioma--the artificial ingredients in Polytrack and any other artificial may, in the long run, burrow down in a horse's body microscopically and cause cancer. The years of testing required to determine that result weren't conducted in the rush to plaster the countryside with beige/blue/pink pseudo-dirt.
If burning tires and breathing in the chemicals from that action are bad for living beings--what marketing genius decided for us that grinding up tires and breathing them in was a Good Idea?
After the last race in Saratoga on Labor Day last year, I took a baggie, walked out onto the legendary track and took some of Saratoga's dirt home with me. I gingerly brought that baggie to Kentucky, a palpable reminder of all that's important to me, all that I love. Of the past 47 years of my shared history with that place. I hope that NYRA doesn't mind that I brought some Saratoga Dirt to Kentucky.
I also took some of that dirt because I feared that one day, all Thoroughbred tracks would be artificial. Maybe not: the results of this new study may stop track operators...well, in their tracks...before the fad becomes the fashion.
I surely hope so, because I experienced something at Keeneland on Saturday that surely broke my heart. I had a ball, I loved the venue, all other aspects of the day were positive.
Except one. One big one.
I managed to get past the throngs of partyers in the apron to stand at the rail for the seventh race. I joyously anticipated That Feeling--the moment the human heart stands stock-still as 10,000 pounds of energy pounds past, the fulfillment of so many dreams, hopes, and workhours. That moment for which spectators crush the rail, to get that single second of glimpsing into Eternity. The spiritual, emotional, physical rush of sharing the power of God.
And it didn't happen. Why didn't it happen? As the horses ran past--they were dead-silent.
WHAT?!!? I felt dizzy, became totally distracted from watching the race's end as I realized that...I couldn't hear the horses as they ran directly in front of me. I was actually thrown off my pins as it sank in that any cushion, artificial surface...absorbs the sound.
I nearly cried as I wrapped my head around it. Much to my disappointment and sorrow--artificial surfaces rob us of the sound, the feeling, of Thoroughbreds pounding past. Like watching a touchdown with the sound turned off, but worse. Worse because those horses running their guts out should give humans the thrill of our lives.
It's that one second of unbridled power that gets human hearts hooked on this sport. The feeling of sub-sonic soundwaves wanging off the track, up through our feet and into our hearts. It's that sound of horses' hooves, like so many crazed soldiers, taking the day.
Imagine if the Battle of Agincourt (1415) had been conducted on Polytrack. The non-sound of 50,000 horses silently surging down the hill toward the unsuspecting Henry the Fifth and his small band. The silence may have been welcome--but that frightening sound was what stirred their hearts; scared the Hell out of them; and caused them to raise their crossbows and win the day.
Silent horses at Agincourt would have been unnerving--but more than that, the absence of hoofsounds would have changed history.
We mere mortals need That Sound, human souls have always responded to That Sound. To rob racing of the frightening, thrilling, heart-gripping sensation of Thoroughbred hooves beating into the ground for one single second as they roar past us--is to steal the very soul of horse racing.
You want to know how to market this sport? Market it to women and minorities. (More on that in next week's column.)
You want to know how to NOT market this sport? Don't take away the one sound on Earth that moves grown men to tears: the sound of joy, the noise of bliss, the clamor toward victory, Eternity and triumph.
Put back the dirt, and grow the sport. Rob us of That Sound--and cut us (and all potential fans) off from the one noise on this earthly plane that connects us to the thunder of God's own creative Hand.