Quote of the Month

"Immortality has been realized once the roar of the crowd has been united."

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parade of the Tearless Eyes

The world of horse racing is merely a microcosm of life as we know it. It is a world filled with lost souls in search of riches and privileged souls in search of themselves. It is a world dependent upon controversy and debate, yet one that abounds with poignant competition and delightful solidarity. Horse racing drives human emotions to unimaginable extremes. The highs have been likened to being touched by the hand of God, while the lows can incite ideations of leading the loneliest existence on earth.

Mankind’s ability to formulate thoughts and articulate feelings helps to distinguish our species from all others. It is this giftedness which allows those associated with the sport of kings to express themselves in ways that define individuality. Thoughts become emotions, emotions are intensified by feelings, and eventually those feelings evolve into the attitudes and behaviors that are so publicly on display.

Six primary emotions were identified by American-born psychologist Paul Ekman in 1972. The classification model he devised consisted of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Each of these universally recognized emotions plays a pivotal role in the horse racing community, yet none of them are as misunderstood or complex as sadness.

We pacify ourselves with peaceful solutions when we are angry, we excuse ourselves from situations and environments that precipitate disgust, and we look for shelter or comfort when we are fearful. Surprise is reconciled by the acceptance of matters at hand, while happiness is embraced for as long as lighthearted sentiment will allow.   

Sadness is an emotional pain characterized by loss, despair, or grief. It is the emotion that most frequently goes unresolved, and in the horse racing world, it is as commonplace as the equine athletes themselves. It can be said that a willingness to love requires a willingness to grieve. For the impassioned people aligned with our beloved sport, this willingness often culminates in either triumphant joy or indomitable sadness.

Humanity needs little guidance in the midst of happiness or gaiety. People will naturally gravitate towards winners and place their trust in the hands of those who are most likely to succeed. We have mastered the fine art of celebration, but our capacity for coping with grief and loss leaves much to be desired. In horse racing, the heartaches are real as despondency seemingly lies in wait for one victim after the other. Everyone connected to the sport is susceptible and there is no magic pill that provides even the slightest shred of immunity. 

 Jockey colonies across the land are a proverbial grab bag of ethnicities, ages, and genders. Gains and accomplishments are measured in mounts that have been secured, purse money earned, and extended blessings of good health. Gains and accomplishments are worthy of celebratory moments, yet along with each individual achievement, comes the birth of another’s misfortune. Mounts bestowed upon jockeys might have little or no chance of winning, or worse yet; the offerings may be gifted far too sporadically. There are never-ending battles with weight scales and the potential for serious injury is always present. Much to the disbelief of some, jockeys do not retreat to plush stalls at the conclusion of a card, waiting for the next racing day to begin. These are authentic lives with families to look after, mouths to feed, and bills to pay. Aspirations of fame and fortune are admirable, but loss and despair can sometimes surface as cold reality in the jockey’s life.

Owners flirt with destiny and risk thousands upon thousands of hard-earned dollars on the animals they love and the sport they cherish. Unfortunately, ownership cannot guarantee happiness as salvation can never be found on the back of a talentless horse.

Trainers balance relationships with their equine athletes that are parental in nature and professional in practice. There is time set aside for teaching and for work, time for rest and time for laughter. Trainers and horses bask harmoniously in the glow of victory, while they wallow as one in the grips of defeat. This unity allows for growth, growth which can only be achieved through the emotional wellness and stability of both horse and human.

Workers employed along the backstretch remain the lifeblood of any race track.  They are devoted souls, creating kinships with God’s creatures that are quite unlike those formed by any other group. From sunrise to sunset, their hearts and minds are focused exclusively on the welfare of the animals. An aptitude for their craft is overshadowed solely by the innate ability to comfort and nurture life. Unbreakable bonds such as these are not meant to be broken, yet every so often, the gates of sorrow swing open in the case of an untimely death.  

We are then left with the horse players, the handicappers. This eccentric bunch has been systematically wired with the gamut of human emotions. Discarded tickets tumble along grandstand floors and take to the air like tiny feathers on windy days. These images in no way reflect the horse player’s disdain for Mother Nature, but rather, they illustrate anger or disgust that gnaws from within as perfectly laid plans have gone awry. Pleasant surprises and spells of happiness await the ardent handicapper, but those moments are often fleeting as sadness and fear loom around every bend. The horse player will press on at any cost, in spite of empty pockets or relationships lost. This unwavering perseverance is the result of being equipped with creation’s most selective memory.     

Sadness is derived from loss, and loss is symbolic of the things that we can no longer have. In horse racing, it comes in many forms and signifies different things to different people. Losses can affect confidence and hope; one’s monetary worth, and indeed, their self-worth. Bodies are sometimes battered and minds can be broken, but no loss is as profound as the loss of another life.

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is perhaps the most renowned authority to date on death, grief, and loss. Following years of work with terminally ill patients, she published the ground-breaking book entitled, “On Death and Dying” in 1969. Kubler-Ross explored death and loss in a multifaceted way, and from a multicultural point of view. She explained the grieving process as one that is comprised of five acutely unique stages. 

Denial is the stage where disbelief overrides reality, while the anger stage can prompt individuals to lash out behaviorally or place blame for the loss itself. Bargaining occurs as negotiations take place with higher powers, and the depression stage is one that cripples both function and sensibility. Persons may be predisposed to more than one or all of the stages, but peace can ultimately be found when acceptance has overpowered one’s grief. These stages are vital to the struggles in life and quintessential during times of death. 

Dance With Fate Following Victory In The Bluegrass Stakes (Photo Courtesy of Heidi Carpenter)

2014 has been a year marked by record-setting achievements and inconsolable tragedies. Not long after witnessing a valiant chase of the ever-elusive Triple Crown, the horse racing community endured two devastating losses.

Fortune tellers might proclaim that prophecies are simply written in the stars, but in some instances, a name alone can be prophetic. Trainer Peter Eurton’s three-year-old sensation, Dance With Fate, was euthanized after sustaining critical injuries in a training accident at Del Mar Race Track on the twenty-fourth of July. The dark bay beauty had already captured the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland, run a respectable sixth in the Kentucky Derby, and was just days away from a start in the San Diego Handicap. Exercise rider Joe Duran was also seriously injured in the accident that claimed the life of Eurton’s talented colt. Initially, the outpouring of support for their camp was tremendous, but as the ink slowly faded from the pages of outdated newspapers, both the horse and rider had quietly become but a memory.

Less than two months later, Belmont Park was ready to open its doors to the public on the fifth of September for its Fall Meet. Early that morning, Juan Vasquez, an exercise rider and part-time trainer, was fatally injured while working an unraced two-year-old for trainer Bruce Brown. Social media erupted with reports about Vasquez and the racing world was soon abuzz with news of his passing. Friends and colleagues were quick to hold interviews so that the thirty-nine-year-old native of Mexico could be fondly remembered. With the day still in its infancy, track officials decided to go on with the card as originally scheduled.

Early in childhood, we are taught that things get better despite the circumstances and that emotional pains will lessen when given time. These clich├ęd words offer little reassurance to those stricken with unfathomable amounts of sadness. Regrettably, some people become mired in one stage of grief or another as the opportunity for healing cannot be clearly seen. The mystery then lies in weaving one’s way through these stages so that acceptance and peace can eventually be attained.

It is essential to find support sources beyond ourselves when coping with losses of any magnitude. Chaplains are employed at horse tracks all across the land to assist the racing community through times of hardship, loss, and death. Grief counselors are at work in every major city in America, and hospice providers can bring comfort to persons consumed by sadness. When coping with loss, we must call upon our own sense of spirituality, pay homage to life that has been lost, look after our physical health, and be willing to reveal heartfelt feelings with one another.

Horse racing is not merely a sport, but a fellowship. This is a world filled with courage, companionship, and hope. It is a world revolving around animals, yet one that endures because of the strength that people share with each other. We are creatures of emotion, forever blessed, without a need to follow suit in the parade of tearless eyes. 

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The author is a horse racing enthusiast determined to offer a unique vision of the sport's most paramount stories.