I had a very interesting conversation with several highly respected long-time horse ladies yesterday, and it centered not on "how things are different now," or "the way it used to be," or "what's wrong with the world today?"
What it centered on was the Travers at Saratoga in which Triple Crown winner American Pharoah lost to a horse named Keen Ice.
Keen Ice had raced against American Pharoah in three previous races, two of which were part of the Triple Crown. In the Kentucky Derby, American Pharoah beat Keen Ice by 8 ¾ lengths, in the Belmont he beat Keen Ice by 7 ½ lengths, and in the Haskell Invitational he beat him by 2 ¼ lengths.
Some people say that if American Pharoah had to lose a race it was fitting that it would happen at Saratoga, a track nicknamed the "Graveyard of Champions." It was at that same track that the aptly named Upset defeated Man o' War and a horse named Onion beat Secretariat. Keen Ice got past American Pharoah by three-quarters of a length to take the Travers Stakes $1.6 million win on Aug. 29.
I was lazing on the couch when a friend called and told me that this race was being televised.
"Aren't you watching it?" she asked.
"No," I said firmly. "And furthermore I don't want to! You go ahead."
I had a lot of reasons for not wanting to pick up that clicker and change channels, and not one of them had to do with the quality of the show that I was watching because I can't even remember what that program was.
Mostly I just feel that, after a horse wins the Triple Crown, he has done enough. His future should consist of a nice big stall, lots of TLC, a happy paddock and the breeding shed. It is not merely being humane that leads me to that decision although that is definitely a part of the equation.
If a horse has given you all of the top races in America, if he has come back as an athlete time and time again in such a relatively short period, if he has stayed sound and sharp to the effort why would you need more? And if you do need more, what will possibly satisfy you?
As a person who is "into" the breeding of good horses, even now as only a spectator of the bloodlines, why would you risk the possibility of an injury that would limit or destroy the horse's ability to pass on the genes that made him great?
The thoroughbred stud book is closed and has been for, what, well over a hundred years — give or take a few score years. There are not going to be any outside horses bringing new infusions of blood into the breed. That means that the thoroughbreds are really very inbred animals.
They are reliant on the combinations of genes that are already there to make new thoroughbreds. If you have a horse that has proven that he has a magnificent amalgam of those limited genes, why would you risk an injury that might keep him out of the breeding shed?
Thoroughbreds can't be bred by collection, only by live cover, so that horse has to be physically able to deal with that. It seems an almost selfish risk to take as a thoroughbred owner to go on racing a Triple Crown winner for money or fame or the excitement of the game.
When the ladies and I were discussing the race, there were all sorts of reasons put forth for continuing to race that horse and it was mentioned that the owners were doing it for the American public so that we could see him again.
Some of the ladies agreed with that, and some didn't.
My feeling is, the heck with the American public. As a thoroughbred owner who races, that owner owes it to the breed to get that horse into the breeding shed so that he can create more horses like him — if, of course, he is genetically capable of doing that, which is pretty much a crapshoot anyway.
And besides that, a horse of that caliber knows when he has been beaten. In their hearts they know it and it hurts them. If you have ever watched a bunch of yearling thoroughbreds racing in the field, you will learn that they understand winning and losing even at that age.
If you don't believe me, listen to someone whom you can't gainsay.
"I feel bad for the horse, getting beat like that," American Pharoah trainer Bob Baffert said after the race. "He wasn't on his A-game today."
It isn't often I get a chance to agree with a man like that, but it was nice that we agreed on this.