I’ve loved horses since I was a very little girl. When I was about nine, I read all the black stallion books by Walter Farley. Then I asked for books about horse breeds here and in Arabia. As puberty approached, I decided to be a horse–Smokey, the horse ridden by the Southern cowboy Tennessee Jed whose adventures I listened to on my little cream-colored radio. In my late teens, I was given a beautifully illustrated copy of Misty of Chincoteague by Margaret Henry with illustrations by Wesley Dennis . I dreamed of going to that little island off the Virginia coast and petting real versions of the fictional horse I knew so well. During my first serious job in Vicksburg, Mississippi, I rode horses every weekend in the Civil War Memorial Park where the girls’ school was located and where I taught all the English courses except for American Lit. Years later, I would read Susan Griffin’s Women and Nature which told me what it does to a horse’s skeletal structure to have somebody ride her/him with a saddle rather than bareback. All the added weight falls at the weakest point in the horse’s spine, explaining why I saw old swayback horses grazing in fields when we drove out into the country on Sunday afternoons. I have never gotten on a horse since. But I continued watching the big races on television until 2008 when I finally realized what they were doing to too many horses forced into the service of mostly white people who attended such festivities.
Yesterday was the 144th “running” of the Kentucky Derby, the quintessential example of horse racing in America. That means the first running was in 1875, just ten years after the war ended and President Lincoln freed the enslaved Africans. This putatively sporting event has never been interrupted or suspended, even during the Great Depression or World Wars I and II. Though the actual race lasts only two minutes, the happening goes on for the better part of an entire Saturday. Hundreds of thousands of people attend and hope to be shown on national television sipping their traditional mint juleps and showing off outlandish hats. Even a casual scan of the attendees confirms a singular fact: this iconic moment in American life is a virtual “white-out”; there simply are no colored faces–carefully made up ones and overly jovial ones are shown having a “swell ole time,” but don’t hope for a black or brown one unless the cameras catch some stable hand or drinks servant.
This cherished moment can be examined from the standpoint of the horses as well as the participants. A friend of mine who owns and adores horses, tells me what I’ve suspected for some time. For years, horses did not compete until they were three years old by which time their bones were fully formed and their musculature was well-developed. But owners began to dream of being the first to run a two-year old and win. Now almost all the horses we can watch straining their hearts and limbs and lungs to amuse us are only two. My friend tells me this is too young for the well-being of the animals. He also tells me that years of breeding for spectacle value have produced animals whose bodies are much too big for their legs and feet. This helps explain the all-too-frequent occurrence of horses collapsing on the track because their legs simply give out of them. The two most famous examples of this travesty came in 1975 and 2008. In 1975 at the Belmont Stakes race, Ruffian, who had won many previous races, broke two sesamoid bones in his right foreleg. The snap was audible on television. Surgery was performed but Ruffian was so traumatized that, upon waking, he thrashed around injuring other parts of his body until a vet gave him a lethal shot. In 2008 at the Kentucky Derby, Eight Belles who came from a long line of winners, was so severely injured–both her front ankles were horribly broken–that she had to be put down by a veterinarian right on site. In both instances, there was a brief outcry about animal cruelty, followed by many pronouncements from people associated with racing that claimed there may be more leg accidents in farm horses than from those on race tracks. (If this sounds familiarly akin to how this country responds to its latest mass shooting, so be it.)
So much for what high-stakes racing does to the animals used for staggering financial gains and a few moments of human entertainment. Now consider what one such race–the Kentucky Derby–is “about” in the context of a severely racialized America. A climactic moment comes when all gathered at Churchill Downs stop their individual conversations to sing “My Old Kentucky Home.” When written by Stephen Foster, this song was to be sung by an enslaved African (or a white singer wearing black face) expressing every enslaver’s fondest hope: ” ‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay.” This myth that lingers in many white people’s imaginations is perfidious in the extreme since it asserts that the enslaving of Africans had no ill effects on those enslaved. And when, in 1986, the Kentucky legislature passed a law changing “darkies” to “people,” that just made matters worse. Now people singing it in between drinks imagine that the old Kentucky home was a great place to be enslaved, since everybody living there is happy in the sunshine. Furthermore, no one singing about the old home thinks it refers to a poor white family’s shack or to the abysmal quarters where those enslaved Africans tried to build families and have some vestige of a life. It refers to the proverbial “big house” where Marse and Missus rule. So the whole ethos around the two minute race is shrouded in nostalgia for a gruesome period in our history that has lasted well over one-hundred years. I have to wonder why more protest doesn’t form around this sporting event that endangers a lot of innocent animals and enshrines a cultural atrocity.