Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” – with the emphasis, one would assume, on “foolish.”
Because plain, old consistency (the non-foolish kind) is one of the most desired traits by everyone, isn’t it? And, certainly, something you look for in other people. Inconsistency is seen as annoying at best and a serious weakness at worst.
I bring this up because of having a personal lack of consistency about something, which bugs me. Saturday, thanks to Rachel Alexandra, I was reminded of it again. I strongly disapprove of horse racing … except I still get excited at times watching it.
I didn’t watch the Kentucky Derby earlier this month. Told myself I didn’t care. As I read all the Derby preview stories (still), a little voice kept repeating in my head: “Remember, you don’t care. Because you oppose horse racing. It’s beautiful animals and tiny people needlessly putting themselves in harm’s way. It’s jockeys starving themselves to make weight and facing the potential of catastrophic injury or death with every mount. It’s horses euthanized when they are hurt. It’s jockeys and horses mistreated at smaller tracks, the ones out of the limelight. All of this for the sake of gambling. It’s just wrong.”
I’ve been telling myself some refrain of this for decades, ever since I realized that race horses could get hurt. Like a lot of people my age, the first time I understood that was in 1975, when Ruffian broke down in the match race with Foolish Pleasure and had to be euthanized. At the time, I didn’t understand it at all. I was sure that they could “fix” her, and indeed they tried.
Veterinarians did emergency surgery and prayed for a miracle, but it was no use. I remember being sad, angry and confused by what happened. I was 10 and couldn’t process it, so I “decided” it had to be an extreme rarity for something like this to happen.
That wasn’t true, of course, but I didn’t know that until I got older. By the time I was in my late teens, it was hard to reconcile it. I knew the truth.
Every year since I could remember, I’d watched the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. I read every book I came across about jockeys and horse racing. I once tried to memorize every Derby winner. I thought Secretariat winning the Belmont by 31 lengths was one of the greatest things I’d ever seen.
When I went to the Museum of Radio and Television in Manhattan a few years ago, the very first thing that popped into my head to request to watch in their library was the broadcast of that 1973 Belmont race.
Then I thought, “Why did that flash into my mind that way? I don’t even like horse racing anymore. I know the reality of it.” Yet then I sat there and watched it anyway, enthralled.
This battle is ongoing for me. Some years, I’ve avoided watching the Triple Crown races … but still read about them. Some years I haven’t been able to stop myself from watching. Smarty Jones and Barbaro were among the horses that I couldn’t stay away from. Last year, when Eight Belles was racing, I couldn’t stop myself from tuning into the Derby. Then she broke both front legs and was put to death on the track.
I won’t ever watch again, I told myself. Won’t, won’t, won’t. EVER.
Horse racing is just another outlet for human conceit, I thought: The misuse of animals to “entertain.” Admittedly, I’m a vegetarian, a PETA supporter and definitely fit into the “outlier” status on how animals should be regarded. I should have kicked horse racing to the curb a long, long time ago and never looked back.
Still … as the Derby approached this year, I started reading stories. Why am I doing this, I thought? Maybe it’s reflex – the sports fanatic’s mental calender clicking in almost involuntarily. I didn’t watch the race … but checked my Blackberry immediately after I knew it was over to read the results.
How inconsistent is that?
I won’t watch the Preakness or read stories about it, I said. Then I saw the headlines as the Rachel Alexandra saga (new owner, decision to run in the Preakness) began, and I was hooked. So there I was Saturday, jazzed up, watching the Preakness and crossing my fingers (how can I still be doing that at age 44?) repeating over and over under my breath, “Please don’t let any of them get hurt.”
Rachel, of course, won and it was totally exhilarating to see. And to remember how much I knew about the history of horse racing (in spite of myself.) And to think about the great fillies of the past I’d really cared about: Ruffian, Genuine Risk and Winning Colors. (“Relating” to a horse because she’s female is a whole other topic I will try to address in a later blog.)
Late Saturday night/early Sunday morning, I went on-line to watch Rachel Alexandra’s victory over and over. Maybe I’m writing this blog as penance? Maybe to see how many of you out there feel a lot like I do?
You see the horses going to the gate, and your heart starts pounding at how beautiful they are. You watch them run and are amazed, overwhelmed … and scared for them. You would no more bet on horse racing than you would jump off a cliff backward. You know there is such a dark side to this “sport.”
But maybe it’s the memory of when you didn’t know that … maybe that’s what draws you back. When you didn’t know horses could get hurt and killed. You didn’t know about abuse and drugs affecting them. You didn’t know about in-breeding and its impact on the stability of the horses. You didn’t know jockeys got paralyzed and died. You didn’t know what win, place and show even meant, let alone that people could become addicted to gambling.
All you knew about horse racing was that a thoroughbred – running, walking or standing still _ was about the prettiest sight on Earth.