I got into horse racing not as a sports fan but as a horse lover. Racehorses are a special kind. Watching them is an experience in and of itself: cascading power to the rhythm of a metronome, muscles rippling with fine-tuned energy, nostrils like air intakes. Every Thoroughbred is crafted to be the ultimate racing machine, as near to one as any living being can get. My first racing love was California Chrome. I traveled once just to see him run, along with many other fans. I have followed careers of other horses, seen racing at nine racetracks, and visited pristine breeding farms. I have been on the backstretch numerous times and admire how much people there know about horses, learned a lot about racing and about horses through it, and even wanted to work in the industry because you get to be so close to the horses and get to love them so much. I was drawn in by racing’s history and its legends. In my opinion, Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont Stakes is the greatest sports performance by any animal ever.
I planned a trip to Saratoga Springs, NY to see its hallowed racetrack, and it happened to be the day of its most famous race, the Travers Stakes. I knew what had happened during the Test Stakes earlier that month. I knew it was possible for something like that to happen again. It was 2015 when I saw my first two breakdowns in person. The first one, named Down Town Allen, earned more than a million dollars. She was pulled up on the backstretch with a torn suspensory ligament and later euthanized. The second, national champion Shared Belief, suffered a fracture in his hip and never raced again; his jockey looked nothing other than devastated as he carried Shared Belief’s saddle and cloth himself. I had seen more safe than unsafe racing overall. Still it always lingered in my mind. Ruffian. Go For Wand. Barbaro. Maple Leaf Mel.
Let me tell you about New York Thunder. He was a good one. He was undefeated in four races on three different surfaces, moving up in class and succeeding each time. It was going to be five. He took the lead from the start and his competitors’ efforts were futile as he began drawing away in the stretch, devouring ground with every stride, a sure winner. All eyes were glued on him. We knew we were seeing a phenom.
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 became apathetic and callous. 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 down and was euthanized on the turf course after what was his first race in the US. Had the races been stopped then, I know that New York Thunder would still be alive. I see him, now, in the post parade, his bay coat glistening, a container of might. I see him minutes later with his leg dangling, helplessly, knowing it was the end.
I don’t know why horses break down or what the actions that can be taken are. That’s for smarter minds than mine to determine. 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 it would have required substantial force for his cannon bone to split.
There is no question in my mind that New York Thunder was loved deeply by people close to him; I am heartbroken for everyone involved. 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 public outrage. The Bills-Bengals game was suspended after Damar Hamilton suffered cardiac arrest. Anything less would have led to a firestorm, as it should. 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 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 dream of a world where we can respect these horses not simply as entertainment but as the professional athletes they truly are. At the very least, that, I think, we would all benefit from.
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