I know a few of the Triple Crown winners; I know that they measure the time of the race in delightfully antiquated fifths of a second; and I know that the clothes the jockeys wear are called silks. I know where Pimlico is, because I stumbled across it when looking for Edgar Allan Poe's house in Baltimore. And I know how the odds work, because I saw The Sting, and it's just math.
I've never actually been to a horse race, and I don't know anybody named Sporty. In fact, I've only been on a horse once in my life; it wouldn't move, but I kept yelling "Whoa!" anyway.
Even rabid sports fans such as I have to make choices. It's impossible to follow every sport, and for me, horse racing is out on the far fringes, along with pro hockey and NASCAR.
Nevertheless, one can't help but be aware of the Triple Crown races, especially if some horse wins the first two legs (the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness), only to lose the Belmont Stakes, as has happened several times over the past few years. The fact that there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner in 30 years, after there were three (Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed) during the 1970s, makes it noteworthy.
Unfortunately, horse racing is more in the news this year not because Big Brown is a monster horse, but because the filly Eight Belles broke down after the finish of the Kentucky Derby and had to be euthanized right there on the track at Churchill Downs. It was a terrible sight and brought back memories of Ruffian, another filly that had to be put down after breaking down.
Not long after the race, People for the Ethical Treatment of Amimals jumped in and began making noises. I've never been a fan of PETA. I've always visualized the average PETA person to be some woman with lots of armpit hair (or a guy with none) who would step over a bleeding Girl Scout to go help a critter with a thorn in its paw.
I understand that some people think that stridency is the way to be heard in the crowded political arena, and that by going way off to one side, one might hope to drag the masses in the middle an inch or two in your direction. But usually, PETA doesn't just go way off to one side. They fall off the face of the Earth, go through the black hole and come out in Gumdrop Land, on the banks of the Grape Nehi River.
Now, having said all that, I'd like to announce that I'm sorta with PETA on this one. Oh, they've gone overboard again in some respects, but they also have some decent and (gasp!) reasonable points. I'm even thinking of signing their online petition, although I'm holding out for line-item-veto power.
I guess sports, like politics, can make for strange bedfellows. It's like that bar scene in Major League when the Indians win the pennant and the construction guy (who's now the janitor on Scrubs) kisses the psycho chick. How Major League didn't win Best Picture is beyond me. That would've made a great trivia question: Name two movies that starred Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger that won Best Picture.
When Eight Belles first went down, PETA called for the immediate suspension of the jockey, a withholding of the purse and an investigation into the owners. I'm surprised they didn't try to find out if that horse in Blazing Saddles got hurt when Mongo punched it.
But then, all of a sudden, PETA veered back onto a course where they might actually gain public support, at least on a couple of points. They've called for an end of the use of the whip, which seems perfectly reasonable. I've heard all kinds of stories from jockeys and trainers talking about the heart of a horse and how some are just champions. (Robert Redford gave a speech on that in The Electric Horseman.) Either a horse is going to run hard, or it isn't. A jockey shouldn't have to whip it.
They'd also like to cut down on a horse's racing schedule. Overworking horses might lead to breakdowns. PETA has called for an end of racing on dirt tracks (where horses might sustain more injuries) and a ban on racing horses until they are 3 years old. PETA claims that a horse isn't mature until that time, but the Triple Crown is built around 2-year-olds, so that would be a mighty shock to the system, although probably not one from which it couldn't recover.
A couple of other things have come to light after Eight Belles that PETA didn't mention, but certainly need to be discussed and then maybe addressed. Trainers routinely give horses Winstrol (a steroid), which would get a human athlete banned from his sport. They also give horses painkillers on race day (a practice that is banned everywhere else in the world). A horse should be allowed to know when it's hurt so it can pull up and avoid catastrophic injury.
OK, so when do I get my cool PETA shirt?