Saturday, December 24, 2011

An American Thoroughbred in Paris

Thoroughbred Times, October 16, 1999 copyright; A. Juell
The Horses in War Saga -- The How & Why of American Thoroughbreds in WW I:

Back in 1999 I wrote an article for Thoroughbred Times on the 1909 cessation of all horse racing in the United States.  The issues were complex, socially driven and centered on the incredible power that political cartels had garnered in the eastern United States, funded to a great extent by the enormous capital generated by gambling consortium's.  Technology, not too dissimilar from today's, played a significant role:  Western Union and AT&T, both owed their initial financial fortunes to the gambling factions, operating the wire services between race track and poolroom.

It was also an era of tremendous social strife, driven to a great extent on the heels of massive immigration from Europe -- in New York's case, the Irish is particular were seen as a social and economic threat to the old-guard Protestant power base.  Locked out of conventional channels of social stratification, the Irish, in particular, pursued the less desirable paths to upward mobility: gambling.  With this financial heft, they also became a political threat to the established power bases, that in turn adding fodder to the grist's of political reformers, those that promoted the evils of gambling as a social disease in need of eradication.  Needless to say, the motivation was merely a misdirection -- the real intent to dry up the money machine that was allowing the Irish to gain political power, particularly in New York.

Now, racing itself was not banned, though through various state and federal legislation, gambling on races, as currently conducted was.  The various laws were directed at the bookmakers and poolrooms who profited enormously by acting as middlemen.  This outside action was also detrimental to the tracks themselves, as like today, the gate was an integral part of the maintenance of the brick and mortar aspect of the game.  While individual contracts were negotiated with these 'makers' and cartels, the wire services were making it increasingly easier (and certainly more profitable), to simply usurp the information that was in effect, the intellectual property of the race track.  This very public skirmish between the gambling factions simply fueled an already politically charged dispute that had spilled onto the front pages of every newspaper in the country, and virtually guaranteed the election of numerous 'reformist' candidates.  With new legislation aimed directly at the gaming interests, horse racing without gambling, was doomed -- The Jockey Club voting to cease all activities in 1909.

The impact on racing was immediate and huge, particularly to those heavily invested in breeding stock, whose value plummeted following the Jockey Club's decision.  Some stock was moved to Canada and Mexico, but the purse structures couldn't support the number or value of these new additions.  Once it became apparent that the ban was going to be an extended affair, many breeders began moving stock to Europe.  However, they were met with a good deal of resistance from  European breeders, particularly the English, who felt (with good reason), that the influx of American horses was detrimental to their ability to fairly compete on their own ground.  It went so far as The English Jockey Club's refusal to recognize American Thoroughbreds into the English stud book.

Racing did resume in New York by 1913, but without gambling.  Hence, no real viability for the sport existed.  By about 1915, most state anti-gambling statutes had been overturned by higher courts, this in turn leading to adoption of the Paris-Mutuels system, which in effect, eliminated the bookmaker -- each bettor simply wagering against all other bettors.  This was deemed constitutional under existing federal law.  But for many Thoroughbreds it was too late.  Europe was falling headlong and inexorably toward war -- a war like no other before it.  It would be a clash of old and new tactics in a suddenly industrialized world and the ensuing carnage would finally mark the end of the cavalry -- and perhaps chivalry itself in the armed pursuit of a purely political agenda.

Many of the better bred Thoroughbreds survived the conflict, their blood credentials offering a degree of sanctuary from annihilation.  But not every Thoroughbred was considered 'priceless,' and in what seemed like an endless demand for 'war horses,' few, if any were spared from the awful task at hand.


Friday, December 23, 2011

The Other Thoroughbred Calumet Farm
An Obvious Bias or Two...

Or three perhaps.  Somewhere around Chapter 18, I decided to explore my own deep-seated case of equine bigotry.  Yes, it's true.  I own a bias or two and as we all know, recovery is a long and painful process with a demoralizing 92% rate of recidivism.  Like that last word?  So did I.  All I know for sure is that the forests and fields surrounding many of America's racetracks are the sanctuary of the hopelessly enamored -- those that know in their hearts and minds that nobody but God could have created something as perfect as a Thoroughbred...

...actually it was the British, but to be fair, it was during a period of England's history where quite a few folks might have confused English aristocracy with the Almighty anyway:

 "God didn't invent the Thoroughbred, the British did.  Okay, that was the painful part.  And it gets worse!  The British actually stole horse racing from the Arabs.  What's more, they also stole the horses, which was probably a little noted side-bar since the British were stealing entire continents anyway.  In order to make horse racing seem like a British idea, they had to invent a new horse.  Racing Arabian horses outside Buckingham Palace would seem...well, touristy?"

Now you'll have to buy the book to find out what the Boston Tea Party, a bunch of Chinese dope fiends and Lady Balfour had to do with it.

But my real bigotry showed up with the first importations of a European invention known as the Warmblood.  It was based on early American experiments with dogs -- notably what became known as the Irish Setter Syndrome, in that they wanted a sleek-looking, fashionable dog with the mental acuity of a potted plant.  These equine genetic anomalies began washing up on shore in the Americas in the late 1970's.  They were, for the most part, "a work in progress."  Whose work and the exact definition of 'progress' based on excessive optimism or whether the buyer's check had already cleared the bank or not.  Germany had the thing down to an exact science.  Every district had its own kind of horse:  Hanoverians, Westphalians...Volkswangoners.  The Dutch got into it as well, though they weren't much on details or just how much Thoroughbred in the recipe was really needed.  Evidently, not much.  However, the French horse breeders, they kept the ratio at about 2/3 TB as compared to the Dutch models which limped in at about 1/16 TB -- "the rest generic DNA scraped from the armpit of a three-toed sloth."  Ooh, did I really write that?  Well, it was 1979.

Of course the French were pretty realistic about the whole thing.  If the experiment went badly, well, the horse always had a second career:  fine cuisine.   Later in the same chapter, I look at how the Thoroughbred got tapped for a little product improvement in Quarter Horses.  And I've included a fascinating interview with Miss 1958 Chevrolet Hubcap on 'mayhem and magnetism in professional rodeo.  A must-read for those folks that cruise the masochistic dating sites.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Torn Faith -- First Thoroughbred, First Irony

[image: Lisa Collins/South Brooklyn Post]
A few of us are forced, at least in the beginning, to ride horses by people who suffer the notion that children were put on Earth simply to fill another roll of film.  At a young age, we are loaded into station wagons, driven to the outskirts of Seattle, Washington and placed on the back of Old Roan.  Here we sit, wailing in youthful protest while parents and grandparents take our picture.  We are positive that we will die, that the horse will eat our small bodies, or that somehow we will be forgotten and forced to spend the rest of our lives attached to the spinal column of a large, hairy animal.  Then, quite suddenly, we discover the true value of the horse -- its speed -- and we gallop away, far from the clicking shutters, far from the angry voices.  And for a brief, incredible moment, we are free!

My first cognitive memory was of the house catching on fire -- twice in one night.  Things didn't really improve after that.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Another Reason to Ride Off to Mexico

6th-Grade Nuclear War Drills

Ah, the Cold War.  In the late 50's and early 60's, nuclear war was considered inevitable, winnable and at the most ludicrous outskirts of wishful thinking -- survivable.  We held nuclear war drills in school, learned not to look at the flash, where we were in relation to the 12-mile radius, why we shouldn't play in radioactive fall-out and why our neighbors were suddenly digging up their backyard.

Safeway sold 'home fall-out shelters'  out in their parking lots -- next to the patio furniture and barbecues.  I'm assuming the 'barbecue' was a pun, but I was a little young for logical argument.  Which in the case of all-out nuclear war was little more than one pun piled on top of many others.  Eventually, the joke would be on somebody, but nobody was quite sure whom.  You see, war, as it had been defined by a generation matured in the conflagration known as World War II, clearly defined a conflict by the outcome:  easily definable by lining up the winners and losers.  In a nuclear conflict, it quickly became apparent that this pennant race was not winnable -- probably not even survivable.  And so the great arms race grounded itself on the rocks of an acronym that only a cynic could love:  MAD.  Mutual Assured Destruction.

Well, we kept doing A-bomb drills at school just the same.  In fact, they were identical to earthquake drills, only we didn't rehearse getting in line to evacuate the building.  Didn't seem like we really had anywhere to go anyway.