More Than We Know

By Joe Clancy
Little League moms. Cub Scout dads. Coaches. Teachers. Neighbors. Middle-schoolers. Gary at the post office. Everyone wanted to know about Barbaro.

And that was before the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).

Afterward, the questions were different but the people still asked me about America's most famous Thoroughbred. With a Triple Crown, Barbaro could have changed racing. Without it, he still might. The injury, the surgery, and the reaction prove America loves its horses.

Within racing, we know animals matter. We know surgical advancements have changed the game. We know people like Dr. Dean Richardson exist. We know millions get donated to equine research.

Ask the average human about racing and they can recall win, place, show, exacta, trifecta, speed figures, carryovers, whips, drugs, shady characters, dirt tracks, and metal gates that clang like old tractors. New Bolton Center may as well be Mission Control to everyday Americans--and Houston, we have a problem.

Betting pays the bills; and I know that. I have cashed and trashed plenty of tickets, but I have also walked hots, mucked stalls, led horses to the paddock, ridden in a horse ambulance, hosed a tendon, messed up a work, taken the halter off a horse put down in his stall, and posed for a winner's circle photo. I can see things in certain horses' eyes.

And that's the stuff people want to know about. There is more to racing than rail bias, hitting a trifecta, or working a fast quarter. There must be. There better be. Racing needs to find ways to bring people to the horses--to care, to learn, to get invested. Other sports hold more popularity than racing, but nobody ever stood on an overpass to wish a linebacker good luck in his surgery.

The horses matter, and people care more than those of us in racing know.

We emphasize sales results, fast times, and freshmen sires. They long for horses to get to know and cheer. We continue to ignore issues like whip use. They wonder why the stretch run sounds like an Indiana Jones movie. We hedge when discussion turns to new racing surfaces. They ask if we can make the dirt safer.

We go on television and talk about picking winners. About trends. About figs and sheets and bounce factors. We write about a--perish the thought--five-week layoff before the Kentucky Derby (gr. I).

The people out there want to know what a horse eats, how a horse exercises, how he lives, what she does when she's not training or racing. They long to find out about the people on horses' backs or at their sides. People want to read Michael Matz' life story. They want to hear what Edgar Prado thinks. They want Peter Brette to tell them what Barbaro feels like when he trots. What does a Kentucky Derby winner trot like? Now there's something they can identify with at the PTA meeting.

Fair Hill Training Center has been in my hometown for nearly 25 years and most residents of rural Cecil County know little about the place despite driving past it to work, school, the nature center, or the mountain-bike trails. Late last year, they learned a barn burned to the ground and killed 24 horses. They also read, a little, about equine herpesvirus.

Thanks to Barbaro, they know more now. They realize the training center, situated within a 5,600-acre state property, houses Thoroughbreds worth millions. They also get why the training center succeeds. Who wouldn't want to live, work, and play at Fair Hill? Horse, human, deer, bird, groundhog, it doesn't matter. When Matz extolled the virtues of open fields, hills, and places for a Thoroughbred to train, a reporter asked if the workouts were timed.

In hours maybe.

Horsemanship takes many forms, not just a formula. The last four Triple Crowns have been dominated by horses from out-of-the-ordinary trainers--Barclay Tagg, John Servis, Tim Ritchey, and Michael Matz. They aimed one horse at 3-year-old stardom, and got it. They didn't rely solely on numbers or train with cookie cutters. They just trained, in as many ways as there are horses in the world. Racing poked, prodded, nearly unnerved them all in search of the usual.

The people just wanted to know about the horses.