August 11, 2012

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? ~ Wendy Aron

A dour outlook runs in my family.

My father had such a gloomy aura that I privately nicknamed him “Black George” because it seemed that whenever he met new people, they got cancer (until the day he got it himself).

My mother’s negativity is much less sensational, but still pervasive. For instance, she watches the first few innings of every Yankees game and if they are losing she turns off the TV, certain they will never come back. She calls me and yells: “The Yankees stink!”

Three hours later, she turns the TV back on and calls me again. In a small voice she says: “The Yankees won.”

My older brothers have taken despair to even greater heights by both choosing health care professions, where they studied about all of the truly horrible things that can befall the human body.

All of this familial misery trickled down to me in such a marvelous fashion that I became the Aron family’s impending doom ambassador—perpetually spreading the same sense of foreboding that accompanied Heathcliff’s arrival at Wuthering Heights.

So, when my husband ordered tickets for the 2012 Belmont Stakes without first consulting me, naturally I responded with trepidation.

Specifically, I told my husband that I was close to certain that we’d be witness to an equine catastrophe of epic proportions at the 144th running of the storied New York horse race.

After many years of going to nearby Belmont Park just to watch the beautiful animals run, my bad vibes about the sport had begun to develop four years earlier, when my husband, at 54, suffered a heart attack and had to undergo emergency triple bypass surgery on the first Saturday in May.

On that day, my husband came within minutes of loosing his life, and a filly named Eight Belles lost hers.

She was euthanized on the track after breaking her ankles in the running of the Kentucky Derby. I watched the tragedy unfold on a hospital TV set while I was waiting for word on my husband.

After that, I started reading up on heart healthy diets and also on thoroughbred racing. I discovered some pretty disturbing things about the latter, basically confirming my suspicions that the sport was often abusive to the animals (not to mention the jockeys).

This year, in particular, had brought serious concerns. The day before the Belmont, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness—I’ll Have Another—was scratched from the third leg of the Triple Crown because he had developed tendinitis in his left front leg.

The colt’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, had been under investigation for giving other racehorses performance enhancing drugs, and I was sure I’ll Have Another had been victimized as well.

I wondered how many other ailing horses were going to be callously forced to run in the Belmont with illegal medication in them?

So, I felt I had a perfectly good reason for my dire prediction.

But there I was in our reserved seats in the clubhouse, sweating, miserable and surrounded by a lot of effusive women wearing sun dresses with stiletto-heeled sandals and colorful straw hats and their dates—self-satisfied men in seersucker suits and bow ties carrying unlit hand-rolled cigars.

This festive, clueless throng knew not what they were in for.

A retirement ceremony was held for I’ll Have Another in the winner’s circle. The chestnut colt seemed even more magnificent in person, and as the crowd cheered for him, he pricked up his ears, seeming to soak up the adulation.

Moments later, Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “New York, New York” was played.

The call of “riders up” was made.

Then, “They’re off in the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes.”

While my husband was busy capturing the race on his smart phone, I tried to close out the frenzied mob surrounding us and hone in on the rather wide backside of a woman wearing a floral print dress in the row in front of ours.

Several minutes later, it seemed like all 81,000 in attendance rose to their feet simultaneously and began shrieking at the tops of their lungs as the thoroughbreds thundered down the backstretch towards the finish line. And what was I doing while this was happening?

Overcome by emotion, I was sitting in my seat hysterically crying.

When a deafening roar emanated from the huge gathering, I tugged on my husband’s pants leg and asked: “What happened?”

“Union Rags won by a neck,” he said.

Did any horse die in the running of this race?” I followed up.

“No,” said my husband.

“Hmm,” I murmured.

We were walking back to the car after the race and we happened upon the path where the horses that had just run were being led back to the barn area. Only a fence separated us.

The thoroughbreds, led by their handlers, were soaked in sweat and seemed befuddled by the all the attention. Poor innocent souls, I thought.

Two months later, a New York Times investigation revealed that I’ll Have Another had suffered from severe osteoarthritis and had regularly been given injections of potent painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications in the weeks leading up to the Triple Crown races.

So my pessimism had been justified after all, I told my husband.

But then, a few weeks after that, there was another article in The New York Times which reported that a bill had been introduced in Congress that would bar from the sport for life any horse trainer who was found to be giving thoroughbreds performance enhancing drugs.

One ethical thoroughbred owner had stood up at a Congressional hearing and blown the whistle on some of his immoral colleagues, testifying in relation to the treatment of the horses that: We should be celebrating this glorious athlete, not trashing it.

Perhaps something positive had come out of the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes after all, I thought. And if that were the case, perhaps I needed to reevaluate staying on in my position as the Aron’s impending doom ambassador. Perhaps there were other possibilities for me and, indeed, the whole family Weltanschauung.


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Wendy Aron has written for publications nationwide, including The New York Times and Newsweek. She is an award winning humorist (Society of Professional Journalists) and comic memoir author. You can see her home improvement humor blog at http://theantijane.com and more of her work at www.wendyaron.com.



Editor: Carolyn Gilligan

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