I have never had such a hard time watching a race as I did Sunday’s showdown in the San Diego Handicap (GII) between Dortmund and California Chrome.
It had nothing to do with what happened during the race itself. Though Dortmund could not get the best of California Chrome (this time around!), he tried his hardest, and they battled to the finish. Though it was a long way back to Win the Space, Follow Me Crev, and Crittenden, all five starters crossed the wire safely.
Hindsight is 20/20, and right now we know the race was one to remember for all the most beautiful reasons.
While it was going on? Every muscle in my body was tense. I clutched my phone, on which I watched the race, hard. I twisted it against itself, half-expecting it to shatter into a million pieces right there in my hands.
What if someone clips heels, steps wrong, falls? That thought, that fear of the worst, crosses my mind several times a day during a good day at the track, usually around the clubhouse turn. A good day is any day during which we never see the horse van. It is a day during which the ambulance shadows the riders seven or eight or nine times, but its back doors never open.
But, Saturday was a bad day at Del Mar. The morning had been disastrous. Whisky and Wine. Big Book. Joelito. I knew that the heartbreaking day had continued into the afternoon. Dutchessa.
More than anything, I wanted the one thing I could do nothing to ensure: that everyone finished the race safely.
Fortunately, that happened. The San Diego turned out okay.
Sunday morning dirt training at Del Mar turned out okay.
But, the knot in my stomach still remains. I know there is no way to completely prevent racing injuries. Saying that’s possible would be the same as saying one could completely prevent injuries of any kind. It would be absurd and unrealistic.
Still, I remain perplexed, nervous, sad. When something about racing hurts this much and makes me this nervous, I like to have an answer. But, it’s a bigger problem than finding one place on the track and fixing it.
I am not the first to wonder about this, and surely not the first to feel like this problem is too big for them. Fortunately, there are smart people researching and working on these problems, people with backgrounds in veterinary medicine and horse care and racetrack operations who are learning how to make racing safer for horses and jockeys alike.
Though we still have a long way to go, I remain hopeful that research into racing safety will continue. I hope tracks will strive to make their racing surfaces as safe as possible. I hope the racing industry and racing fans alike will support that work. Though we will never completely get rid of the bad days…we owe it to the horses and the riders alike to work toward having as many good ones as possible.