Time­less tales of the turf

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me ei­ther at the li­brary or the barn.

For the past four years, how­ever, my read­ing/rid­ing bal­ance has been a lit­tle out of whack as I re­searched a book about the 1918 Ken­tucky Derby win­ner Ex­ter­mi­na­tor. Yet in ex­change for lost time in the sad­dle, I had the priv­i­lege of im­mers­ing my­self in an era when horses fea­tured much more in ev­ery­day life than they do to­day. In the first decades of the 20th cen­tury, horse rac­ing ranked with boxing and baseball among the most pop­u­lar Amer­i­can sports, and ev­ery ma­jor news­pa­per em­ployed at least one turf writer, a jour­nal­ist who re­ported solely on rac­ing.

Those turf writ­ers didn’t just re­port on is­sues of in­ter­est to bet­tors; they also chron­i­cled the foibles of char­ac­ters pop­u­lat­ing the back­stretch, the sub­tleties of equine con­di­tion­ing and the per­son­al­i­ties of the horses them­selves. Many had once worked as train­ers or rid­ers, and that ex­pe­ri­ence came through in their writ­ing.

In read­ing their col­umns to­day, I am struck by how much in­for­ma­tion about horse health they man­aged to con­vey amid dis­cus­sions of bet­ting odds, hand­i­cap weights and track con­di­tions. Ref­er­ences to “short and choppy” strides, shelly feet and other phys­i­cal is­sues abound. In fact, one reporter ob­served, “Most of the sons and daugh­ters of As­tronomer have shelly feet, which prob­a­bly is the rea­son such of them as race at all

show their best form on slow and heavy tracks.” A ge­netic cause of shelly feet! A ripe topic for an EQUUS ar­ti­cle.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, the vet­eri­nary care race­horses re­ceived was dis­cussed. One writer ex­plained that a horse named Johren had bowed a ten­don and “was turned out im­me­di­ately for a rest cure at Brook­dale farm, a rest cure be­ing about the only sure cor­rec­tive for a bowed ten­don, votaries of the fir­ing iron not- heal­ing---has fallen out of fa­vor. (Af­ter their legs were pin­fired, horses were rested. It seems the time off was ac­tu­ally what helped the bowed ten­dons.)

Those turf writ­ers also rec­og­nized the in­tan­gi­ble el­e­ments that sort win­ners from losers. “This horse was meant to be a topliner,” wrote one. “But he is cursed with moods and will not do his best at all times. I’ve watched this fel­low time and time again pull up af­ter a race and I’ve never seen him distressed---or even tired.”

Read­ing those old rac­ing col­umns, I felt a kin­ship with the writ­ers de­spite the years that sep­a­rate us. Af­ter all, like me, they spent their days cel­e­brat­ing the ath­leti­cism and idio­syn­cra­sies of horses. A few even pon­dered big is­sues: “Horses are hard to fig­ure out when those who breed them don’t know which is the chaff and which is the wheat,” wrote a reporter in 1924.

Horses are in­deed hard to fig­ure out. But it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to try. And the time I spent read­ing the work of these turf writ­ers makes me ap­pre­ci­ate the es­sen­tial el­e­ment that has al­ways con­nected horsepeo­ple. We can de­bate end­lessly over which barn man­age­ment sys­tem is best, and what causes shelly feet, but what unites us is the quest to learn all that we can about the horses we love.

El­iza McGraw’s book Here Comes Ex­ter­mi­na­tor! was pub­lished in April.

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