Commentary: Bye George

I’ve only worked in the Thoroughbred industry for two years, so I don’t pretend to know the history of horse racing to the extent of most people I encounter each day in my profession.

But I do know one thing: the sinking, nauseating feeling that came while standing by the rail to watch the Breeders’ Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) and hearing the shouts, “Something’s happened to George Washington!”

My mind was racing as I watched the horrible scene unfold in front of me: photographers running away from the victor and toward the tragedy; John Magnier’s adult son covering his face with his hands; the screens going up around George. I knew it was over—I knew his fate.

I witnessed a similar scene just a few weeks earlier when Dream of Angels reared up in the Keeneland paddock and fractured his skull on the rubber brick pathway.

This tragedy reopened those wounds, and the images I’d tried to erase from my mind.

That same feeling of sickness came rushing back. I was devastated over an animal I had never known, so why did it feel so personal? George Washington meant everything to Europe; he was their Barbaro figure—a hero.

I looked around from the seats to the press box and saw indifference. Cold, hard stories were filed, and people went about their way.
By people, I mean Americans. We were enthralled on the backstretch when George had graced the track to stretch his legs a day before the race. But where were we when he faltered and his ankle gave out? Where was our grief?

George Washington, an Irish-bred son of Danehill, was the winner of four group I races. A multiple champion in England and Ireland, he was bred, ironically, by Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s Lael Stable, whose Barbaro broke down in the 2006 Preakness (gr. I).

I talked to many Europeans—fans and journalists alike—on Breeders’ Cup day who were distraught, calling the sight of George on the track one of the “worst things they’d ever seen.”

There’s nothing more painful than watching a grown man sobbing for an animal that meant the world to him, or a dumbfounded groom carrying the blanket that George would never again wear back to the barn.
When George went down, my mind flashed back to his majestic presence in the paddock—the sheer beauty and grace he exuded, right down to the long whiskers on his chin that made him look even more distinguished somehow. I saw with my own eyes why he was nicknamed “Gorgeous George.”

Yet all I gathered from most everyone else around me was an attitude of disregard for a European champion.

Dave Johnson, the emcee of the post-Breeders’ Cup breakfast, didn’t mention George’s fate when he remarked on what a “great Classic” it had been. Don’t get me wrong—Curlin was terrific. But to me, a race where a horse’s life was claimed can’t be called “great.”

I think we (again, I mean Americans) dropped the ball on this one. Just because George didn’t win our Kentucky Derby or our Classic, should he receive any less respect? We were hanging on every piece of news when it came to our beloved Derby winner Barbaro after his devastating injury.

Did we suddenly forget that racing isn’t always about the mountaintops? No matter who it is going down on that track, we should show compassion for a life lost. I know death is part of the game, but I didn’t realize the lack of compassion and regard for another’s tragedy until I saw it firsthand.

The Breeders’ Cup is, after all, a day of international championships. We invite runners from overseas who put it all on the line to provide for more exciting competition, yet where were we when a harsh reality needed to be faced and reconciled?

If we want Europeans to keep returning for the Breeders’ Cup, we need to show respect—rejoicing in the wins and being there for the losses, too. Otherwise, why are we in this? 

I was told how reverent Churchill Downs officials were at last year’s post-race breakfast toward Pine Island and Fleet Indian, who were euthanized and injured, respectively, during the 2006 Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I).

But the same respect for George never came.

So now we move on, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look back. Above all, I think we need to raise our glasses to George—a horse we didn’t know well, but one who meant so much to people on another continent. Here’s to you, George—you deserve it.

View the George Washington Slide Show

Esther Marr is a staff writer for The Blood-Horse

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