Horse racing: a Kentucky Derby contestant

This is one of two pieces that inspired the book, Missionville.

It happened again, and I still really don’t understand it. I am now standing here, in an unfamiliar stall, surrounded by unfamiliar people. This usually happens after every three or four races.

The race itself seemed a little easier than the races I had run in lately. While I did not feel like I could run particularly fast, with the urging of my rider – ouch! That whipping stuff does hurt – I moved my tired and sore legs as fast as I could, and managed to finish second, about a neck’s length behind the winner.

The next morning after my race, my new groom feeds me some breakfast and fusses around me as she undoes the wraps around my legs. Having been through this routine for a number of years now, I know what to expect next.

She, or another fella who might be the trainer or assistant trainer, will rub their hands down each of my legs, twist and flex my joints, and try to find my pain points. They will jog me up and down the shed row, and then make some medical decisions, along with their vet.

In the next few days I’ll receive a series of injections, sometimes in the joints that do bother me – my left hock and right front ankle – and sometimes in other joints, for goodness knows what reason. It’s a mystery to me why these folks don’t talk to the last guys that looked after me. One time, a few months and trainers ago, I remember I was injected in my left front knee. That knee had never given me any grief in my life.

It was not always like this.

I was born to be great, or at least I used to be treated as if I would be the best colt of my generation. My youth was spent at a big and lush horse farm in Kentucky. As a baby, I frolicked and played around with other young colts and their mothers; life was full of curiosities and possibilities.

My first inclination that things weren’t always going to be idyllic was when I was put up for sale. I had assumed that all the pampering and fuss I had received as a baby was because I was loved, but apparently it was my monetary value, rather than me, that was loved. I fetched my breeders a tidy sum too, $1.5 million dollars.

I imagine my new owners assumed that I would be a rocket-ship for that price. I learned my trade as a young horse, being “broken in” – seriously that is what they call it, when we allow riders into our lives to train us before the racetrack – in sunny Florida. I was with hundreds of other young horses, all with the same target: to be the next Kentucky Derby winner.

Of course, only one horse can achieve that honor each year, and for my year it was not me, but I was close, which I think is pretty incredible.

I raced three times as a two-year-old, winning my second race in New York, at Saratoga, by several horse lengths. I was lauded upon my return to the saddling enclosure; my trainer, jockey and groom really seemed very thrilled with me and my effort. There was also an audible buzz coming from the large crowd, the type of buzz you get when you witness something special.

In my next and final start as a two-year-old, I won again, this time it was a “stakes race,” which is very prestigious. I remember my groom showing me the Daily Racing Form the next morning; on the front page there was a big picture of me. The story headline read, “Thunder Clouds, (that is my name of course) Storms to Victory in the HillTop.” I remember thinking how clever that headline was, and I will admit, I was pretty proud of myself at the time.

The next spring I raced three times, and won once, and placed the other two times. I was one of the top twenty money earning colts of my generation after three wins, so it was decided that I should take my place in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.

This was the real big time. Massive crowds thronged the backside each morning for our daily training exercises in the week leading up to the big day. And while I enjoyed all the attention, my right front ankle was starting to nag at me a little bit. The vets had been called out to see me, over the previous few weeks, and I had received a series of injections to try to relieve the pain. Once the pain was gone, I could run just as fast as if the pain had never been there in the first place.

I did not win the Kentucky Derby. Actually, honestly, I was a little over matched at odds of 50-1, and finished 14th in the field of 20 horses. I tried to make a bit of a run at the leaders going into the final turn, but I did not gain too much ground. Deep into the stretch I felt the urging of my jockey – ouch, and ouch again – while also feeling my right leg weakening a little around the ankle.

Anyway, I had my shot at super-stardom. The horse that won the race went on to win the coveted, and often elusive, Triple Crown series. He was sold for $100 million at the end of the year. He was then retired from racing and embarked on a lucrative – and likely quite enjoyable – stud career.

For me, it was a different story.

I had a few months off. During that time, my caretakers also decided to remove my manhood; apparently I was’t going to be good enough to be a stallion, so gelding me was supposed to help me focus on racing. Honestly, I was pretty bummed about my new condition at the time, but like anything, you simply learn to get used to it.

I returned to the races for a fall campaign. My first race was again at the end of the Saratoga meet, this time in a small stakes race, which I won. But then my ankle started hurting again, and it was really making me a little less agile in my training. The ankle was treated, and I raced again and again, each time in stakes races, each time finishing slightly lower down than the last time. You know, it is quite disheartening when you get beaten, not because you are not good enough to win – I was, I was getting beaten by horses I had previously defeated easily – but because you were not a 100% healthy.

My trainer was now getting in newer and younger horses, my turn in his barn was coming to an end.

In my next race, my first race as a four-year-old, I won, and I won easily. At first I was a little confused because before the race I did not feel particularly great; my hock had started hurting now, as well as my ankle. Nevertheless, I was still able to win. The other odd thing, after the race I was collected by someone I did not know, and taken to a horse barn full of strange horses and strange people.

This was then to be my new life, moving from trainer to trainer, every three to four races, and sometimes moving to a new racetrack.

I am now at a racetrack that is quite small. While I spent my youth running around one mile tracks in front of the large boisterous crowds of Churchill Downs and Saratoga, I’m now racing at a bullring track of about 5/8ths of a mile in god-knows-where, West Virginia.

Few people come out to watch our races; we mostly race at night, and sometimes in the dead of winter under floodlights and sleet and hail.

Oddly though, I am a bit of a celebrity on the backside. Everyone seems to know me, and say affectionate things about me as they pass me by going to and from the training track; ‘How’s ole’ Thunder holding up after his last race?’ a rider from another barn might ask. My rider would invariably respond, ‘He’s great; amazing old hoss.’ It did not seem to matter if I did, in fact, feel fine or if my ankle or hock was hurting. I was oblivious to the high stakes claiming game in which I was an unwitting pawn; the game meant that no one reveals my real well-being, in case someone listening is plotting the next claim for me.

So I am being readied for my next race. I have a new exercise rider, as is always the case when I move to a new barn. He seems like a decent chap, he was the leading rider at the track some twenty years ago. He will pet me once in a while, and let me know when he wants me to go slower and faster. Sometimes, though, he does not show up for work; sometimes he comes to work but there’s a stink on his breath that is really overwhelming. I have experienced all this before, in a couple of weeks I will be sent to race again.

But the reality is, I have pretty much had enough. My legs are tired and sore. I have not had a break since after the Kentucky Derby, which is now more than three long years ago. Since that time, I have raced 34 times, winning quite a few (10) and losing quite a few more. During my 34 races, I have been ridden by lots of different riders, none of whom paid too much attention to me. It was the same with the grooms who looked after me temporarily, and also with the vets who kept stabbing me with needles full of drugs.

I am now standing in the starting gate for my next start and wait for the gates to open and the race to unfold. I can’t imagine that I can win this race, but I have felt poorly before and won; they somehow seem to make the races easier, just as I think I can no longer compete. My specialist distance is now 5/8ths of a mile, which is a far cry from the mile and a quarter of the fastest two minutes in sports.

As the race begins and we head out of the clubhouse turn and into the backstretch. I take a bad step – well “take a bad step” is the euphemism they will use to describe my final moments.

4 thoughts on “Horse racing: a Kentucky Derby contestant”

  1. When I worked at tracks I could never understand that when we claimed a horse most of the time, especially with a young horse, the people I worked with claiming the horse never seemed to understand ( or maybe didn’t care) that the animal was probably afraid & nervous being with new people all of a sudden. And would act that way. And some people would beat the horses up just trying to get them to stand still. Yeah if that’s going to help. Why exactly does she need to stand perfectly still anyway. Working with these two men in particular I was always relegated to staying out of it and not being able to do anything about it. Most of those horses were not particularly hard to handle, those guys made it be that way. My favorite claim story was Ms Busybody. They took her to the washrack after the race to hose her down & kept punching her. And I kept still & staring at her & I think she just could see in my eyes how bad I felt. I didn’t even know her but kinda felt like I did. The next morning Miss ran both of those guys out of her stall. I wonder why. Actually I think just one of them even made it into the stall and he came out from under the webbing rolling in dirt across the shedrow. I said let me try. Miss & I had spent hours staring into eachothers eyes by now & I wanted to go over to her. I knew I liked her. It didn’t bother me what she did to the men they deserved it. So when they gave up and got out of eyesight I ducked under her webbing, went over to her & started petting her neck. Just like that. And somehow I knew it would be that way & I thought it was oh so funny when the guys came back. And it wasn’t just the two men she wouldn’t let in her stall, it was everybody. Except me. This never happened to me before like this and never again. How did this horse get out to train before we got her? How would she get out to train when she left? When the trainer was in town I had to tie her to the wall so the men could get to her and make it look like there was no problem. Miss was with me at Turfway for only a month. I couldn’t wait to see her race but never did. On very short notice as was usual working for this trainer, I led her into the van and she was off to Aqueduct. A few days later she ran there for twice what she was claimed for and aired. I never got to see it.

  2. Oh yes – your story is good. I am not a critic I just like to write for some reason. The only things in my opinion that are not quite right are 1) A little too much on the injections. But we all have different experiences with racehorses and that is based on my real life experience. But — most trainers you work for will hide alot of that from the help & I didn’t train that way, so my viewpoint might be slanted in the wrong direction and not be the norm. 2) Yeah you can kinda predict the ending before it happens.

    That’s it. You are a writer, aren’t you? What do you get out of taking a creative writing class?

  3. Brilliant, but sadly many times true story, Alex.
    Wish all these horses, could end up in programs like “ReRun”, or
    retirement places like “Old Friends”. They deserve much better, than many of them get.

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