I have just finished reading the article in this morning's New York Times about racehorse breakdowns, "Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys," by Walt Bogdanich, Joe Drape, Dara L. Miles, and Griffin Palmer. It is a difficult--Jakob Schiller's haunting photograph of a dead horse, dumped after he broke down, sets the tone--and very worthwhile read for those of us who are fans of the greatest game.
Given my current obsession with the twenties racing hero Exterminator and my general interest in turf history, I tend to look backward when I am thinking about racing. The idea of horses breaking down--and the article has just as much about the harrowing and perilous life of jockeys--is something that overshadowed even what was arguable racing's most exciting decade: the 1920s.
1924 Kentucky Derby winner 1927 Black Gold's death was probably the most public. (And Marguerite Henry readers well remember her children's book, Black Gold.)
Kevin Martin, over on Colin's Ghost, the site I just mentioned the other day, wrote an excellent piece about Black Gold and his breakdown here in 2009 and updated it this month. There, he quotes the AP writer's report from that January 18th:
"Black Gold was running a fine race when the leg snapped. He was fighting for second place in the race. Dead game to the very last, the prize possession of Mrs. R.M. Hoots of Oklahoma, suffering the mishap with but a sixteenth of a mile to go in the Salome purse, tried even on three legs to continue.
"He was led back to the paddock and still was shaking his proud and perfect head in resentment at the tight hold taken on him by an assistant. He flinched as the needle of destruction pricked his skin, tossed his head high and pricked his ears even as the needle was withdrawn, and the next second dropped dead…."
I thought of Black Gold today, and how for many his death has come to symbolize the tragedy of the racetrack breakdown. The way he died became part of his legend; in Henry's book, the announcer says that Black Gold finished the race "on three legs and a heart."
The way-too-many horses mentioned in the Times piece will not all have books written about them, or memorial statues, as Black Gold does at Louisiana's Fair Ground infield, but for him--and them--read the article.
Image from the Amsterdam Evening Recorder of February 13th, 1928. Accessed at www.fultonhistory.com.