Great teamwork made it happen, Sahadi says. “I’ve never found any other animals like these that are so well taken care of. The jockey develops a relationship with the horse that is like a man and a woman.”
Still, brutal examples of abuse, neglect, over-breeding and abandonment persist. Just two months ago, HBO canceled its horse racing drama, “Luck,” when a third animal died during production.
“Am I going to tell you that every horse is treated correctly?” Malusis says. “No.”
Ultimately, the human members of the team choose what they do. The horse doesn’t.
But Galterio says, “Most people understand that (these horses) are bred to race. If not, I’m not sure what they’d be doing. What the racing industry does is its best to safeguard the animals on and off the racetrack.”
There is another human element here, and that is the imagination the public brings to the track.
“I go to the track, because it helps me get lost away for a little while from life’s cares,” Malusis says. “It can be an escape, and then more and more, you read the behind-the-scenes stories of the owners, jockeys and trainers – the human successes of having become part of the story of the colt striving for greatness.”
The colts: We identify with them, don’t we? The out-and-out winners like Man o’ War, War Admiral, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew. The little horses that could like Seabiscuit, giving a frightened nation hope in the Great Depression. The front-runners like Affirmed, “rising up,” in the words of “Eye of the Tiger,” “to the challenge of our rival.” The woulda-coulda-shouldas like the fabulous gray stud Native Dancer, whose only loss, in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, was blamed on jockey Eric Guerin. (As one Churchill Downs board member famously grumbled, “He took that colt everywhere on the track except the ladies’ room.”)
Then there are the tragic figures like Barbaro. When this exquisite chestnut broke his leg in the 2006 Preakness, a horrified nation watched, waited and willed his recovery, only to see him succumb to laminitis – the hoof disease that also took Secretariat and Affirmed – eight months later.
“There were people who drove to the equine center in New Bolton, (Pa.),” Cirillo says. “Children wrote get-well cards. He was as beloved as any ballplayer.”
“I think Barbaro was a Triple Crown winner,” Malusis says. “Anytime you see a horse break down, it breaks your heart.”
This year, he’s got his eye on Union Rags, trained by Michael Matz, an Olympic equestrian who was Barbaro’s trainer.
And we’ll be watching, because whether it’s a Secretariat or a Seabiscuit, they’re us.