By Victor Zast
Shortly before the second race on Sept. 21, the paltry gathering of 2,500 people stood in silence as the image of the Statue of Liberty and the smoldering buildings of the World Trade Center pixelated on the video messaging board in the infield of Arlington Park.
A scratchy recording of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" broke through the quiet and arrested all movement except for the horses which circled the walking ring.
Ten minutes later, my 4-year-old maiden named Ensign Shipp was vanned from the track in an ambulance.
Everyone knows that horse racing isn't an easy game, yet I wonder why it takes a moment like this to remind me of it.
Ensign Shipp was a skinny horse, narrow through the shoulders and slight of muscle and bone. His half-brother, Take Note of Me, was much the same, but he had a different father and lifetime earnings of more than a half-million dollars. On the day of his demise, Ensign Shipp had slipped to the lowest rung in the claiming ladder, having failed to win in nine sorry starts.
The bottom is where one finds the greatest number of horses. Here the sport is played for reasons hard to comprehend. The players hope to find the needle in a haystack--that one good horse to pay the bills while waiting for the future to unfold. In a world without hope, there isn't much point to racing.
I owned a handsome horse by Pine Bluff for whom the slightest excuse was enough for him to stop. When my trainer sent him out in the morning, the horse would quit when the other jocks would call out "whoa" to their mounts. There were Happy Cadillac and Wee Bit of Scotch and Effusive Tirade, too--runners whose pedigrees promised victory, but whose temperaments were far better suited for a merry-go-round. The list is long. Indelible. Mountain Melody, Declaimer, Penmanship.
Now I'm beginning to think it's time for me to give up on all this. Fifteen years of shattered dreams have left me sleepless in naiveté. The events of the past few weeks have caused me heartbreak. Ensign Shipp was supposed to be one of the good ones. Although the significance of death is measured by the importance of a life, I didn't need for this to happen in a week like this when the world is walking around hangdog.
As a 2-year-old, Ensign Shipp was sent to New Orleans for the winter, where he was supposed to break his maiden and prepare for racing as a 3-year-old at Sportsman's Park in the spring. All he accomplished at Fair Grounds was to finish second in a training race. "He'll win up north; he's ready now," my trainer said of Ensign Shipp.
Instead, the horse ran three discouraging races, getting bumped into the background from the starting gate. He was sent to the farm in June and never returned to the races until his 4-year-old season--now a horse much stronger and more mature, the optimistic prophecy.
But Ensign Shipp folded like origami in his first race back and was promptly sent running long against the slowest animals racing. He ran a nose, a neck, and three-quarters of a length from victory in 1 1/16-mile races in which he led from the flagfall in fractions a turtle could post. Then another disappointing start, and another.
Before the final try, my trainer said he'd take Ensign Shipp off my hands. He would run him against other heartless horses he could beat, then share the winnings with me as if it were I who'd been paying the feed bills. The deal was done until the horse came limping back to the unsaddling area.
Back at the barn, Ensign Shipp began to writhe and sweat, the temperature rising in the unlighted stall like a bloody defeat in the aftermath of war. We sent for the vet to end it.
Prior to the race, standing in the paddock to watch Ensign Shipp being saddled, my silks looked battered and frayed at the seams, a sin of fashion which only my wife would notice and care to mention. The men all laughed at her insult and set it aside as just a trivial perspective, and the jockey replied, "They're good enough for this horse."
Anyone who ever owned a racehorse will know how wrong the jockey was. VICTOR ZAST took a filly by Wild Rush home from the September Keeneland sale. He plans to race her in new silks next summer.