Friday, January 17, 2014

LOVE CONQUERS HATE: Confessions of a Former Horse Racing Hater


by Tom Gumbrecht                                                   

Originally published in Horse Directory, February 2014

Most people who know me, either personally or through my written words might be surprised to hear me referred to as a “hater.” But it’s true. I was a horse-racing hater.

How that came to be was that like most hate, mine developed through a combination of outrage, passion and ignorance.  I might still be in that state if not for a young racetrack groom who I became acquainted with through a series of seemingly random events.

My disenchantment with horse racing began after I purchased my first Off-Track Thoroughbred mare, Lola, from the New Holland auction. I excitedly returned to our Long Island horse farm with great expectations which were crushed the next day when the drugs that masked the symptoms of her injury wore off.

Lola in her racing days

It took almost two years, a lot of work on my part and a lot of patience on Lola’s part, but she did ultimately become sound. During that time, Lola revealed herself to be the sweetest, most honest, thoughtful and grateful horse to ever grace our barn aisle. I love all of our horses, but the bond that developed between Lola and I was special. Although in almost constant discomfort in the early days, she would nicker furiously whenever I stepped into her view, be it hours or seconds from the last time she saw me.  She had issues. She was damaged. She was not a perfect horse, but she had the perfect attitude with which to get well, and to motivate me to get her well. She showed me that a good attitude was much more important than good fortune.

The love that developed morphed into protectiveness when I finally found out her racing identity and documentation of her brief but promising career. My heart sank when I watched the video of Lola’s final race after posting numerous wins and places in just a dozen or so starts. She was pulled up, and limped off the track. My heart sank even further when I realized that it was but two weeks later that she found heself at the New Holland auction and later that evening, at my barn.
The author with Lola in a new life.. for both!

My shock and sadness turned to outrage. How could anyone with a heart beating in their chest discard this willing athlete without so much as an effort to help her? My anger began to seethe and the embers were fanned into flames the next spring when the Fox Hill mare, Eight Belles, was euthanized on the track at Churchill Downs after finishing second to Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.  I became a hater that day. I didn’t know how to process my grief and so allowed it to become anger that sought out the bizarre and misguided comfort that comes from hate.

You see, hate allows us to think we are doing something about an issue when we are actually doing nothing. It is social activism for wimps. But hate is not a normal state for me. It was a manifestation of my untreated grief, anger, and outrage stemming from my love of an animal. And to love it had to return. I needed an opportunity to rid myself of this destructive emotion, and life provided one.
Teddy takes a nap with Casey at Monmouth Park

At a point it came to pass that a former stakes winner was saved from a feedlot by an alert racetrack worker, and he landed in the safety of a local horse rescue and sanctuary whose work I had been supporting. Soon after, word spread that a NY racing syndicate who had at one time owned the horse stepped up and made a contribution to his ongoing care at the sanctuary. That horse’s life softened that day, and so did my heart... at least a little bit. I was impressed by the gesture and contacted one of the partners who was fluent in social media, and told him so. An online friendship developed which led to me being linked to many of his racetrack connections, one of whom was a young track groom named Casey Brister.

Casey was, and is, a unique personality.  A comforting beacon of positivity, enthusiasm and wit in any venue, let alone the racing world that I had heretofore viewed with suspicion. Not even twenty years old, she possessed what we older folks most endearingly refer to as an “old soul” referring to poise and wisdom beyond her years. Casey’s life is about horses. In racing season, it means skillfully and thoughtfully seeing to the needs of the horses in her charge, and filling their world with the love of a horse-crazed girl that every horse deserves.
Casey Brister with Teddy at Monmouth Park
Photo by Corinne Cavallo @fotocavllo

I began reading Casey’s ‘day in the life on the backstretch’ blog posts, and so was introduced into her world, the world of horse racing. It turned out that it was a world, perhaps busier, but with the same reverence, compassion and love for these majestic animals as we experience at our own home barn.  She was generous in the sharing of her experiences and so I became educated. Education is the enemy of hate, and this unassuming ambassador for goodness in the racing world, not one-third my age, unknowingly became my teacher. I began to see things through different eyes, the eyes of knowledge rather than the eyes of ignorance.

But racing is seasonal, and when the tack trunks are packed up at the end of the season, Casey unpacks her art supplies and embarks on her other career.  A self- taught artist, she has the innate ability to recreate not only the image of her equine subjects on paper, but captures their soul as well, and gives it back one skillful pencil- or brush stroke at a time. Many are skilled at the mechanics of drawing, and their techniques are appreciated and respected. Once in a while there exists something special, some secret ingredient that asks you to gaze deeply into the liquid eyes of the image and to almost feel their horsey breath on your cheek as you do. That ingredient is love.

This Christmas season, I had the honor of having Casey recreate Lola’s soul for me on paper. I treasure it, not only for its aesthetic beauty, not only for what it is, but for what it represents: the triumph of love over hate.
Casey finds the soul of Lola and puts it on paper..

Truth be told, I still have some issues with racing, but they are not much different from my concerns with the competitive disciplines that I was part of in the horse world: treatment and care during the competitive years, and pensions for ongoing care when their competitive careers are over. I can live much easier with my concerns knowing that there are people like Casey Brister at racetracks all over America.

Visit Casey Brister on facebook: Living In Realism - Artwork by Casey
Visit Corinne Cavallo on facebook: FotoCavallo

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