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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Times Column a Cheap Shot

- A horse died of a heart attack at Belmont on Wednesday, and New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden happened to be there. The result is a column (subscription site) entitled An Unknown Filly Dies, and the Crowd Just Shrugs.

There was no array of photographers at Belmont Park yesterday, no sobbing in the crowd as a badly injured superstar horse tried to stay erect on three legs. There was no national spotlight.

Instead, there was death. In the seventh race at Belmont, a 4-year-old filly named Lauren's Charm headed into the homestretch. As she began to fade in the mile-and-an-eighth race on the grass, her jockey, Fernando Jara, felt her struggling, pulled up and jumped off.

As the race concluded, Lauren's Charm collapsed. No one, except those associated with the horse and two track veterinarians, seemed to notice.

The scene was in stark contrast to what unfolded at Pimlico last Saturday when the Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, severely fractured his ankle in the opening burst of the Preakness. A national audience gasped; an armada of rescuers rushed to the scene. In the days that followed, as the struggle to keep Barbaro alive took full shape, there was an outpouring of emotion across the country and heartfelt essays about why we care so much about these animals.

But I'm not so sure we do, and I'm not so sure the general public fully understands this sport. When people attempt to rationalize the uneasy elements of racing, they often say: "That's part of the business. That's the game."

But there was nothing beautiful or gracious or redeeming about the seventh race at Belmont. This was the underside of the business. The nuts-and-bolts part, where animals are expendable parts of a billion-dollar industry.
The column appeared prominently at the top right of the front page of the sports section, countering at least some of the positive karma that may have come out of the outpouring of sympathy, and the Herculean medical efforts on account of Barbaro. Great.

It’s a astounding piece of journalism to be sure. Unless he’s a track degenerate, Rhoden was at Belmont, I imagine, to do some more follow up on the Preakness. But once the filly went down, Rhoden went to work, interviewing the attending vet and jockey Fernando Jara (who was aboard that 41-1 shot that won the subsequent race); plus, he tracked down the horse’s owner on his cellphone at a track in Massachusetts, where he watched the race. He also got behind the scenes and offered a grim and disturbing portrayal of the filly’s disposal.

But I do think it’s a bit of a cheap shot. For one thing, the depiction of An earthmover [pushing] the horse against a concrete wall, is unnecessarily lurid and doesn’t really add anything to the debate. In addition, for Rhoden to write that people didn’t seem to notice...Or care isn’t fair. People watching on TV, probably more than half the crowd, didn’t know about it any more than the owner did; while the TV shot showed the filly pulling up on the turn after leading to that point, there was no indication from Tom Durkin that she was in distress. I wasn’t there, but I’ve seen these incidents, and people do care. Not everyone, but neither does everyone when someone falls and hurts them self on the street. I don’t really know what the writer would expect everyone to do. It’s like anything else; you pass the car crash, gasp at the gruesome wreckage; and though some may have a heavier heart than others, all but a scant few continue on to our destination.

It’s acknowledged in the piece that such an occurrence happens in just around 1 in 20,000 horses. The writer happened to be there to witness it, and the events apparently lent themselves to his making a point. Since when does the Times have a writer at the track on a weekday? If they did on most any other day, the chances are that, with similar journalistic fortitude and without the same agenda, he or she would be far more likely to produce a piece about some unknown horse that may not be particularly fast, but is nonetheless healthy and happy and enjoying the gift of life that it has solely due to the existence of this sport.

- On a brighter note is this cool cartoon on Opening Day at Suffolk via Railbird. It’s a look at some of the things that we love about the sport, particularly the last frame – ....and hope springs eternal.


Anonymous said...

Rhoden has written about horse racing a few times in the past, when he's absolutely forced to, at Triple Crown Breeeders' Cup time. He does not like horse racing as he made very clear in that column yesterday, so he always puts a negative spin on it. I remember one column he had a few years ago when he was talking to a well-known trainer about some contender for a big race. The trainer was telling him that the horse liked or disliked doing something, saying that the horse had a certain type of personality. Rhoden as much as called the man delusional to think that horses had personalities, reminding us all that they are just dumb animals. It was really snotty, in a I'm-a-Times-writer-so-I'm-smarter-than-you way. George Vecsey is the other one who rises from the crypt whenever a horse is hurt to tell us what degenerate creeps we are for liking racing. His column on Monday said anyone who would bet on Barbaro in the Preakness would bet on cockroaches running across the floor. It was a strange statement. Sometimes I think he's drunk when he writes.

Anonymous said...

Rhoden's article is shameful, yet it's not a surprise to someone like me who wrote the NYT off years ago. Your outrage at this article is the same outrage those on the right feel when they read about Iraq or the economy in the NYT: "5% growth this quarter, but we're gonna tell you about the single heartwrenching example of someone who was fired and is struggling to support his family, so the economy sucks."

Just something to think about, LATG. Still love you despite our differences of opinion politically.

Anonymous said...

...i agree with premis of the article...for instance, if it had been Diabolical who broke his ankle leaving the gate, and Barbaro had cruised to victory, the whole thing would've gone mostly "Diabolical Watch" on Bloodhorse, no television updates on Diabolical's condition,'s an example for you...remember Siphonic??? extremely nice 2yo, and one of the springtime Derby favorites before an injury derailed him...well, he later continued on with his career, and one day dropped dead shortly after crossing the finish line...heart attack...his untimely passing didn't get much attention at, let's say this exact same horse, Siphonic, drops dead after crossing the finish line in one of the televised Derby preps that he was the big favorite in...or perhaps after his big win in the Lane's End Futurity...same horse, same heart attack, but very different media coverage, and quite likely a very different reaction by those within the industry...but horseracing isn't alone in this, far from's really no different than the major sports...for instance, if something happens to Albert Pujols, people care...if the same thing happens to Jason Lane, nobody cares...that's just the way the world is, unfortunately...

Anonymous said...

Yes, and so what's the point of the column? Is Rhoden implying something callous and unnatural about NOT having a media blitz for every horse that gets injured? He doesn't want to believe that racing fans, track employees, or horsemen themselves can possibly care about the horses, so all of a sudden he's a one-man righteous crusade. Where was HE when ordinary horses broke down over the years? How come he wasn't writing when Dancinginmydreams broke down in the Frizette? Not high-profile enough, I guess. He's got another negative column today, Saturday, milking it for all it's worth. Can't stand the guy.

Anonymous said...

I am one of the lucky people Mr Rhodin interviewed that afternoon. Since he didn't see fit to print this part of the interview, I will replay it here. He baited me with the comment that everyone seemed to care about Barbaro, but no one seemed to care about this "anonymous" filly. I told him, "No one cares? I can assure you, sir, that this filly's connections were grief-stricken." He asked who those connections might be. I told him "the assistant trainer and groom ran out there immediately, to be by her side. To the people who spend every day of the week with her, she was as special to them as Barabaro is to the Jacksons".
For what it's worth...