Friday, May 06, 2005

Derby day

Tomorrow's Derby day, and I'm embarrassed to admit that I'll be watching. Every year, I swear off it, citing exploitation of racehorses...and every year, I turn it on anyway. I'm torn between the abuse that I know takes place and the attraction of watching incredibly beautiful horses tear up the track. There's a potential Triple Crown threat tomorrow in Bellamy Road, an absolutely gorgeous horse whose Wood Memorial victory was the stuff of legends. It's hard to explain the thrill I feel watching the nation's top horses float across the track during the post parade; I've been connected to horses since I can remember - and I mean really connected, in an undefinable instinctive sort of way. Watching those ethereal forms flit over the track gives me chills. They are the embodiment of Plato's perfect forms, and their instinct to run rises off them like early morning steam. You know they love the race, and regardless of the industry, there's nothing more emotional than watching the spirit of a horse open up and take to wing.

Still, horse racing has its drawbacks, and I stay away from it most of the year. There are too many injuries and deaths for me to find it palatable, and I can't watch a horse in pain without remembering the way one dying mare's panic tore through my own consciousness a few years back...They were trying to open her up for an emergency C-section that would end her life - and when the ropes brought her down, the force of the fall tore open some channel between human and animal consciousness. It's been opened for me before - once as a child when I recognized without understanding my dog's near-fatal illness before it was diagnosed, and a few times as an adult. This time, it manifested as a raw, primal pulse of energy that left me reeling in the veterinary barn, gasping for breath as I tried to quell the fear that overwhelmed me. It wasn't my fear or my pain - but it was real, the struggles of a flight instinct cast forever to the earth.The sensation ebbed away as she died, but I can still remember the smell and shape of that terror. I remember trying to wrap my mind around it, to soothe the mare by sending basic, elemental feelings of peace and acceptance back into the space between us -- but that intensity was something I'll never forget.

So, every time a horse breaks down on the track, I read about it and envision its pain and fear. I can't see through equine eyes, but my limited understanding can grasp the essence of what a wounded horse endures. Horses tend to suffer in silence like most animals, so when they cry one knows it must be unbearable. At least this year's Derby has eliminated horses who are unfit for its frenetic pace; most owners finally seem to have grasped that there's nothing to gain from running a stable pony with the big colts. Part of me hopes this will be the year someone finally does the impossible: it's been decades since Seattle Slew took the last Triple Crown, and I'd like to see one great horse attain perfection in my lifetime. I know my mixed emotions are irreconcilable - it's funny, but it was a lot easier to ignore racing when I was riding. Without that part of my life, I have to have a surrogate for vicarious enjoyment; something has to feed the insatiable passion of my soul. Until I scrap up the money to return to riding, you know what I'll be watching on the first Saturday in May. Go baby, go.

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