Horse Racing Needs a Hail Mary Pass

I got into horse racing not as a sports fan but as a horse lover. Racehorses are a special kind. Every Thoroughbred is crafted to be the ultimate racing machine, as near to one as any living being can get. Yet, if you’ve been lucky enough to spend much time around horses, you already know that they’re typically gentle and peaceful animals. Over the years I have attended many race days, followed horses’ careers, and visited pristine breeding farms that put any regular horse farm to shame. I have been on the backstretch numerous times and met not just lovely horses, but also incredibly hard working people; some of them have worked on the track for decades, and for others it’s in the family. I admire them, and I, too, wanted to work in the industry because you get to be so close to the horses and get to love them so much.

In August 2023, I went to Saratoga Springs, NY to see its hallowed racetrack on the day of its most famous race, the Travers Stakes. Despite all of the dedication and care that I have seen firsthand, the longer I followed racing, the more it left me disappointed and disillusioned. I knew what had happened to Maple Leaf Mel during the Test Stakes earlier that month. I knew it was possible for something like that to happen again. Breakdowns have always been a risk. It was 2015 when I saw my first two in person. Down Town Allen, who dominated the West Virginia circuit and earned more than a million dollars, was pulled up with a torn suspensory ligament and later euthanized due to complications with the injury. That same day, national champion Shared Belief was pulled up with a fractured hip and would never race again; his jockey looked nothing other than devastated as he carried Shared Belief’s saddle and cloth himself. Although I have seen more safe than unsafe racing, it always lingered in my mind. Horses like Ruffian and Barbaro are etched in the sport’s memory. It pains me to say that many others, though, are not.

New York Thunder in the post parade.

Let me tell you about New York Thunder. He was a good one. Physically he was plain looking, lithe and sinewy, but his record spoke for itself: four wins in as many races on three different surfaces, moving up in class and succeeding each time. A horse of this caliber is rare, and on this day it was going to be five. He took the lead from the start and reeled off quarters in 22 1/5, 44 2/5, and 1:08 4/5. This was a sprint race, and he was drawing away from the others—how lucky we were to be witnessing a racehorse in full splendor! At the same time I had an ominous feeling, flashbacks of Maple Leaf Mel.

Suddenly his left front cannon bone snapped in half.

New York Thunder went down face first. His jockey was thrown ahead, luckily avoiding his falling mount and the oncoming herd of horses. New York Thunder quickly got up and ran towards the finish line as his leg flipped and flopped. He pounded on it more and more, then fell, then got up again, then was finally caught by handlers as he lost momentum, as the pain surely caught up to him, and stood calmly as he became surrounded. He had crossed the finish line. With rapid efficiency, the screens were brought out. I have photographed hundreds of racehorses since 2013. These weren’t the photographs I hoped to get. Through tears, I was determined: people need to know.

He had given everything. There was nothing that could be done to make it better, for him to survive. He was euthanized right there on the track. The crowd was shielded, “protected” from seeing an athlete’s promising career and life being over, and his body being loaded into the trailer.

As horrific as this was, it was only shortly after that I noticed the crowd around me seemed apathetic. While there was no celebration for the “winner,” there was no acknowledgement of what had just happened either. They weren’t going to stop the races or take time to honor him. The trailer had long since driven off. The tractors harrowed the surface a couple extra times. The runners for the next race on dirt were called to the post. I found this nonchalance almost as disturbing as the actual breakdown. Only the sky, which had brought a cloudburst earlier, gave way to a rainbow.

It turns out that another horse named Nobel (who I did not see, as I came later in the day), bred in Ireland and raced in Britain, broke a leg and was euthanized on the turf course after what was his first race in the US. What if the races had been stopped then? What if New York Thunder was still alive? I see him—now—in the post parade, his bay coat glistening, beautiful. I see him minutes later with his leg dangling, helplessly, knowing it was the end.

I don’t know what the actions that can be taken are. All I know is that New York Thunder would have been training well in the mornings. He would have passed pre-race veterinary exams, including observations before the start. And something must have gone extraordinarily wrong in order for his cannon bone to split. The Blood-Horse published an article examining factors that may have contributed or led to New York Thunder’s breakdown. I’m not here to make accusations. Certainly New York Thunder was worth more alive than dead. The same cannot be said for many racehorses.

From the moment he was born in Kentucky, all the people who cared for New York Thunder day in and day out have my deepest condolences. I feel especially sad for the ones who came back to an empty stall that day. Unfortunately, what I saw at Saratoga utterly failed to reflect that. Cancelling racing—setting aside Saratoga’s belief that their tracks are safe—would have been out of respect, that Nobel’s and New York Thunder’s lives were valued and that they mattered. Stop the racing, for God’s sake! Death in a human sport would cause outrage. These horses? Their deaths are merely distractions. They are disposable. They are machines. Sometimes things must be seen to be believed. Finally, I had.

New York Thunder didn’t decide that one day he was going to be a racehorse—we made him one for us. He had more talent in those brilliant moments than any of us will have in a lifetime. When he died because of what we made him do, he was not given a morsel of respect. I am so sorry, New York Thunder.

The racing industry puts out thousands of Thoroughbreds every year, each with the hopes of becoming a special racehorse, like New York Thunder was. They are also in need of a lifetime of care, something else humans fail to do more often than they should. I question whether we can respect racehorses not simply as entertainment, but instead as the professional athletes they truly are. They do so much for us. What, exactly, are we doing for them?

In memory of New York Thunder
March 14, 2020 – August 26, 2023

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Funeral Blues by W. H. Auden

© Jessica Strauss

Guest Blog Throwback: 2014 Pennsylvania Derby & Cotillion Stakes

September 2014, Parx Racetrack

Thirteen races on the day’s card were highlighted by the grade I Cotillion for three-year old fillies and the grade II Pennsylvania Derby for three-year old males. The races attracted some of the best horses from the two divisions, and therefore, about 16,000 people. I was at the Haskell Invitational in the summer and saw Untapable, the top 3-year old filly and Cotillion favorite, and Bayern, who won the Haskell and would be running in the PA Derby. Most exciting for me though and really the reason I made the trip was to see my favorite racehorse, California Chrome.

The third race was a maiden for two-year old fillies. Serious Happiness got the score in her fifth race by a solid margin. In the winner’s circle, the young filly was very antsy.
Monaguska with an authoritative victory over an allowance field in the fourth race.
Post parade for the fifth, the eventual second place finisher.
#4, Bama Bound, would get the allowance victory by a nose.
Bama Bound.
Hello 🙂
Off in the sixth!
A win by Dawly.
Cast a Doubt would cast aside all doubts in winning the seventh race (next two photos).
After a rough trip—slightly impeded in the stretch, taking lots of dirt—Catch My Drift won the eighth, her third win in four starts.
#9, Dancing Lounge, takes a look at #10, Atlantic Seaboard, prior to the Alphabet Soup Handicap.
Prudhoe Bay examines the crowd.

The Cotillion Stakes

Cassatt came first into the paddock, dragging her handler and trainer Larry Jones. Nervous or just high-strung in front of the large crowd, they were doing everything they could to keep her restrained. I heard many compliments about how good a horseman Larry Jones is. One man called someone and said, “I’m here at the paddock, you gotta come down here, you gotta see this horse!”
Final adjustments on Jojo Warrior.
Untapable remained composed and business-like. Rosie Napravnik sat calmly on the filly. The crowd cheered as the pair passed by, so Rosie quickly put her finger to her lips in a shushing gesture—which thankfully worked.

I tried to get good photos of the Cotillion, but unfortunately was not very successful. The field of eight (#9, Stopchargingmaria, was scratched) got off smoothly. Jojo Warrior had the lead in the upper stretch, but Untapable kept bearing down on her. She hadn’t won that way since her victory in the Pocahontas Stakes in 2013 (when she closed in on Stonetastic in the same fashion). The two went eyeball-to-eyeball for a dozen strides or so, but Untapable, urged on by Rosie Napravnik, passed by Jojo Warrior like a champ. Jojo Warrior faded in deep stretch, allowing Sweet Reason (#2) to grasp second money. Untapable, after facing the boys in the Haskell, found the winner’s circle again!

In the paddock stood two statues, painted to the silks of last year’s Cotillion and PA Derby winner. Close Hatches won the Cotillion and Will Take Charge won the PA Derby. Close Hatches was unbeaten so far in the year, while Will Take Charge had been retired due to a minor injury after good performances in big races.

The Pennsylvania Derby

California Chrome’s arrival was met by cheers from the crowd.
His fanbase was very prominent.
Classic Giacnroll.
Protonico.
Bayern.
Noble Moon.
California Chrome detracted most of the attention from the other horses, but Candy Boy, in particular, still inspired some awe when he passed. One woman simply commented, “You’re a big boy Candy Boy.”

When the race began, Chrome was almost immediately boxed in as Bayern surged to the front. The Offlee Wild colt (pun intended) stayed there through increasingly fast quarters—and ultimately, made the eight horse race a solo act. California Chrome toiled some ten lengths behind Bayern, who set a track record for the mile and an eighth. California Chrome finished sixth.

Tapiture’s handler looking at the replay screen.

Despite the disappointing finish, Chrome was welcomed back with a pat on the head from groom Raul Rodriguez, an acknowledgement of the power and intensity of a racing effort. As California Chrome passed by—breathing heavily, veins streaming across his coat glistening with sweat—the crowd cheered. He didn’t win that day, but his fans didn’t care. He had already won their hearts.

Bayern, with that characteristic eye, after a dominating Pennsylvania Derby win.

Guest Blog: The Long, Winding Road to Kentucky

When I decided years ago that I wanted to visit Kentucky, it was to see my favorite racehorse, California Chrome. But before I could, he moved to Japan. I hope he comes back someday (or that I go to Japan, of course); he was a special horse that really got me into racing. I’d later learn that Will Take Charge would also be moving to Japan, so I was lucky to see him near the end of our trip.

Anyway, after 12 hours of driving, I was ready—for fried chicken, Thoroughbreds, racing, and stallions. We had arrived in Louisville. For a city that hosts prestigious Thoroughbred races, has a huge convention center, is the hometown of major companies and Muhammad Ali (AKA The Greatest), the city was rugged outside of a 2 block radius, and not many people were walking around. Nevertheless, we made the most of it.

At Churchill Downs, we went through the Kentucky Derby Museum, which had some cool facts and items. When the race day began, I speedwalked from paddock to rail and back again for 7 races.

This horse got a quick wash in the paddock before gearing up.
Malibu S S, a compact, muscular horse that finished 2nd in his race.
Eleven Central being brought down for the 6th race…
…and after winning, being brought out of the winner’s circle.
Two Minute Drill first, Justifying second.
The statue of the magnificent Barbaro in the stretch of the 2006 Kentucky Derby.

We drove 1 1/2 hours to Lexington (named after the racehorse, whose statue is at Thoroughbred Park), which was more quaint but still had some towering buildings and parking garages. The area in and around Lexington has a plethora of horse farms and 2 universities—yet it felt like being in the movie Inception. Despite what looked like attempts at revitalization (perhaps derailed by the pandemic), there wasn’t much to see or do. The main street had a fair number of people; outside of it, there was practically no one. Once, as someone breezed through a red light, a woman at the crosswalk threw her hands up and expressed her anger: “Fine, just go through the red light, there’s no law here!” Meanwhile, a multinational center advertised Lexington as the city to be. As in Louisville, we tried to make the most of it.

Thoroughbred Park is a small triangular oasis.
This towering statue of Secretariat, horseracing’s GOAT, stands in a roundabout. Wish we had statues like this back home!

The highlight of our trip was Old Friends, which has retired some horses I know and watched on TV, so it really felt like visiting old friends. Among many star-studded residents, the one I was most looking forward to seeing was Game On Dude, which luckily we did AND I got to pet him (though he was more interested in eating carrots and cribbing). Dude was surprisingly unimpressive—small in stature, plain brown, a tapering snout—but a top-class racehorse with multiple stakes wins and $6.5 million in earnings.

Game On Dude.
Game On Dude’s pasture buddy, Little Mike.
Bellamy Road.
Green Mask.
Silver Charm paid no attention to us, then eventually casually walked over for some shredded carrots.
US Ranger.
Draxhall Woods and Exulting.
Milwaukee Brew waited patiently for carrots.
Albertus Maximus stayed in the field across from his half-brother, Nobiz Like Shobiz. He passed away shortly after we got home, at age 18.
Special Ring was eager to show us his lip tattoo. Sun King joined in on the fun.

Claiborne Farm is one of the most historic stud farms because some of the greatest stallions in US history have stood here. They raise horses on another part of the farm, and race their own in yellow silks. We didn’t realize until later that they are apparently very unique in allowing people to pet the stallions and take pictures with them right there.

Runhappy, a fast racehorse, is the most playful according to the guide, though still respectful as he extended his neck to mouth the air or chain. I was amazed by how athletic he looked.
War Front was a decent racehorse, but has really found his stride as a stallion, with the highest fee on the roster. He stood statue-still in the conformation stance.
Only when the guide reached into his pocket for peppermints did he move and let out a soft nicker.
War of Will (a son of War Front) begged by pawing the ground.
First Samurai begged over top of his gate.

The Kentucky Horse Park is a huge place with lots to see. There was even a show jumping event while we were there, so we snuck over to watch. Similar to Old Friends, the Park has been the retirement home of some champion racehorses.

The mighty Man O’ War, described simply by Joe Palmer “as near to a living flame as horses ever get.”
Staff Sergeant Reckless served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, and is known for her actions in the Battle of Outpost Vegas. She is buried at Camp Pendleton. “She wasn’t a horse—She was a Marine!”
Drying off after a bath.
Champion Funny Cide.

At Keeneland, preparation for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships was underway. The energy was palpable. We toured the facilities and watched horses during morning workouts. Opening Day was packed, so we hugged the rail to hold our position.

A young horse schooling eagerly in the paddock as the morning light strikes the old white sycamore.
Horses on the way to start their workouts, while others do theirs on the inside.
The stretch drive of the first race.
She’s All Class after her first career win in the second race.
Crackalacking in the post parade for the third race. They might have noticed me standing taking pictures on the highest ground available.
Olga Isabel (12) passed the finish line first, but was disqualified and placed 2nd behind Jag Warrior (11).
My Uncle Leon, energetic in the post parade for the sixth race.
Manny Wah, eventual winner of the Phoenix Stakes.
I’m not the only one who loves photographing racehorses… here’s Sabalenka.
Delight after winning the Jessamine Stakes.
Wonder Wheel after her Alcibiades Stakes win.
“The losers” of the last race of the day.
Dance Warrior, a job well done after finishing 3rd.

Three Chimneys Farm is another stud farm and was a late addition to our itinerary, where we had extra time.

The legendary Seattle Slew.
Volatile, a sprinter.
Palace Malice taking a nap.

I saw Will Take Charge in the 2013 Preakness Stakes. He finished 7th. By year’s end, he would be champion 3 year old male. Against top competition (including stablemate Palace Malice and old friend Game On Dude) in 11 races that year, he proved himself a tough racehorse. His 2nd—by a late-surging nose—in the Breeders’ Cup Classic is still one of my favorite races, for when the big chestnut started his stretch drive, you were in for a good race. As our large tour group approached, “Willy” turned to face us, ears flicking to and fro as he stood calmly, looking with kind eyes. His flashy markings made him easy to spot both live and on TV. His large, tall frame carried a musculature that exuded strength. Truly a hunk. He is also the friendliest stallion you could ever hope to meet.

Will Take Charge in the 2013 Preakness Stakes, taken with my point-and-shoot camera.

At Stonestreet Farm, which focuses on broodmares and their babies—how life begins for a Thoroughbred racehorse—we saw Mannerly’s weanling, known as the nicest one around the barn and a camera-hog. A future superstar?

Tapit – Mannerly filly.

After that, we started on our 10 hour drive back home, with lots of horse memories and without having had one single piece of Kentucky fried chicken.

Karniyarik

Plain yogurt, lemon juice, garlic, salt.

Minced parsley.

Brown ground beef, diced onion, cumin, salt, pepper, 14.5oz diced tomato

Oven 350º.

Cut baby eggplant in half, take a few strips of skin off with peeler, scoop out seeds, brush with olive oil, bake 10 minutes.

Slice cubanelle pepper into strips. Microwave 2 minutes.

Stuff with meat, top with tomato slices and cubanelle pepper slices.

Broil until a little browned and bubbling.

Make Cous Cous.

Top with yogurt and parsley.

Spring Key

Oven 375º with rack in middle
Butter and parchment line bottom and sides of 10” springform
1 1/2 packets graham crackers crushed
Stir in 4 tablespoons of melted butter and 1/4 cup sugar
Press mixture gently into bottom of pan
Bake 8 minutes
Let cool
Reduce oven to 350º
Beat 6 egg yolks and add one can of sweetened condensed milk
Save whites for pavlova
Mix in thoroughly 3/4 cup Florribean Key Lime Juice
Pour mixture over crust and tap to release bubbles
Bake 15 minutes
Place plastic wrap on surface and refrigerate
Or cool 15 minutes and cover pan with foil.

Ye Olde Cabbage Rolls

Core green cabbage and put in large stockpot of boiling water. Peel off leaves with tongs when loose and pliable. Put on plate to wait. Empty water when finished and use same stockpot for making rolls.

Make sauce. 1 large onion finely diced and half stick of butter, salt, pepper, saute until onion translucent. Add 1 16oz. can of tomato sauce/pureé/crushed. Add two heaping tablespoons of brown sugar. Bring to a boil and simmer. You can also add 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar and/or a teaspoon of smoked paprika.

Make filling. 1 1/2 pounds of ground beef, 1 cup or so of already cooked rice, 2 or 3 garlic cloves pressed, salt, pepper, egg, worcestershire sauce. Mix. Put 1/3 cup in each leaf, roll like a burrito, place seam side down in sauce and simmer for 45 minutes.

Makes about 14 rolls.

Copyright © 2019 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

Heart & Posole

Limes! Stop forgetting limes!

Olive oil
Salt
1/2 yellow onion medium-fine dice dice
8 cloves garlic through press
Chili powder
Tomato paste, the whole can
4 cups chicken broth
4 cups water
Oregano
2 25oz cans Juanita’s Hominy
1 rotisseri chicken, meat pulled apart into bite size pieces

Avocado
Radishes
Cilantro sprigs
Blue corn chips
1 Lime

Heat olive oil, add salt, add onion, cook until turning translucent,
add garlic, wait a minute or two, add chili powder, stir around for a minute, add tomato paste, stir around for a couple minutes, add chicken broth, add water, add hominy, add chicken. Bring to a boil and simmer for awhile.

Top with cilantro sprigs, thinly sliced radishes, avocado slices, squeeze over some lime, then crushed blue chips.

Copyright © 2019 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

Day After Soup

For the broth:
Turkey carcass
1 large carrot roughly broken
2 celery stalks roughly broken
2 bay leaves
1 yellow onion quartered with skin on
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
2 sprigs of parsley

Put all ingredients in large stockpot add enough water to cover or just about cover the turkey. Bring to a boil then simmer for two hours or so skimming off any foamy stuff around the edge. Take out the big pieces and then strain into another pot or bowl big enough to hold the broth.

For the soup:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 yellow onion medium dice
3 carrots sliced thinish
3 celery stalks sliced thinish
3 cups turkey meat pulled apart
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning (or half tsp each of sage, thyme, marjoram rosemary, pepper— I leave out the nutmeg due to allergies)
1 teaspoon salt—taste to adjust after a little while
3/4 cup Madeira wine
1/2 pound wild rice or mixed wild rice like Lundberg wild blend
All the broth plus water if needed

In a stockpot/soup pot add one tablespoon olive oil, teaspoon of salt and add onion, celery and carrot and cook on medium-high until softened. Add poultry season stir for a minute so it can bloom. Add 3/4 cup Madiera wine and turn heat to high and reduce about half. Add broth, turkey, rice and water if needed (I add water if needed to bring level up to about 4/5 of stockpot) bring to a boil, simmer for a few hours. Spoon off any foamy stuff around edge.

Copyright © 2018 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

Summer Roll

I make 3 per person. Here I’m making 12. Sometimes the ingredients get a little tilted by the the end. I usually run out of avocado first.

2 cups boiling water in a 9×9 casserole dish or something close to that. Break up a quarter of a 14oz package of rice stick noodles and soak for about ten minutes then drain in colander. Cut up a bit with scissors.

36 shrimp. 3 for each roll. I buy frozen medium size wild-caught white shrimp and flash them for 3 minutes in lightly salted boiling water. Then drain in colander and remove tails.

On a big cutting board:
1 carrot julienned (I have a hand-held Japanese julienne tool thing)
1 cucumber cut lengthwise and seeded. Julienne half. Thinly slice other half and put in bowl with some rice vinegar.
About 2 cups of cabbage finely sliced (Napa, Savoy, green, or whatever)
1 avocado cut in halves and sliced thin
Cilantro leaves and tender stalk
24 or so basil leaves

12 25cm extra-thin spring roll wrappers.

With enough space on cutting board to roll and a 9×9 casserole dish with hot water next to it, rotate wrapper through hot water, place on cutting board and begin to load about a third of the way down the wrapper: basil leaves and shrimp next to each other and then everything else on top. Tuck in sides and roll.

Sweet chili sauce for dipping.

Copyright © 2018 MRStrauss • All rights reserved