Yes, they’re off at Saratoga for the 144th season, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a perfectly jolly season as long as you don’t look too closely and can concentrate solely on the “sport of kings” glamour and glitz of the thing.
Because when you reduce it to its bare bones, all you’ve really got is animals being used as vehicles for gambling, the same as dice or slot machines, and being pushed to their limits for the purpose. Sometimes beyond their limits, with the aid of the pharmacological arts, so they wind up breaking down on the track and having to be killed — or “put down,” or “euthanized,” as we say.
Which is what happened last Sunday during the traditional open house that precedes opening day, when races are run just for fun, without betting. Three horses broke down in three separate steeplechase races and had to be killed. It was a shame, but this weekend is still Hats Off to Saratoga, so let’s concentrate on the positive.
True, Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised an investigation when The New York Times revealed a few months ago that horse fatalities were increasing as casino profits at tracks like Aqueduct were skewing the economics of the racing game. Plugs worth only a few thousand dollars were able to compete for purses as high as $40,000, thanks to the infusion of slot-machine loot, with the result that owners kept pushing those plugs to greater efforts and the plugs, no surprise, broke down at a greater rate.
When you figure in all the penny-ante tracks in the country and not just the glamour tracks like Saratoga, “two thoroughbred race horses die on average every day in North America,” according to Wikipedia. That’s two deaths per 1,000 racing starts, not counting those that break down and die in training. Saratoga does better. Last year Saratoga had only one breakdown per 1,000 starts.
It’s really part of the game, feeding the horses drugs and medications that will mask the pain of their injuries and debilities, and trying to stay one step ahead of the track veterinarian.
I do not qualify as a bleeding heart when it comes to the use of animals in public spectacles — I’ve been known to shout “ole” at a particularly elegant pass at the bullfights in Mexico City — but I do note that many of my countrymen are bleeding hearts in the animal department, and I’m always surprised that so many of them turn out to cheer the whipping of horses.
I understand that it’s a colorful and exciting spectacle, but then so is bullfighting, and it offers the added excitement of betting, which bullfighting does not, but even so, it puzzles me. I guess people just don’t think about it, that it’s not exactly natural for a horse to be running and all of sudden for its leg to break.
I said last week I happened to be in Atlantic City, and that was not entirely accurate. I didn’t just happen to be there. I went down to see a couple of local boxers take on some heavy competition, they being Chris Fitzpatrick, a middleweight, and Rafael Luna, a junior welterweight, both of whom train at Maximum Fitness in Troy.
I used the opportunity to make some observations about Atlantic City itself, but that was really a sidelight, and of course a dim one at that.
Fitzpatrick, who was fighting for the vacant North American Boxing Federation title, got a raw deal, in my view and in the view of his corner. He suffered a minor cut in the first round, which did not appear to bother him and did not appear to get any worse as the fight progressed, but after the fifth round the ring doctor unaccountably stopped the fight because of it.
Fitzpatrick was probably behind on points, having gotten out-punched in the first few rounds by his opponent, Patrick Majewski, but I thought he was picking up speed and was still very much in the fight when it abruptly got stopped. His corner protested, and the crowd protested, but of course to no avail.
Luna fought a tough six rounds against Osnel Charles of Atlantic City, which he thought he won, but the judges called it a draw. Back in the dressing room I told him I thought he won too, but it was a close fight, and it could have gone either way.
I did take some photographs of these proceedings, and of a couple other fights as well, and you can view these in the photo gallery at left.
Carl Strock is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper's. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.