Balancing Act

Posted by on in The Outside Rail

Wise Dan should run on the dirt. Royal Delta should run against males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Cross Traffic should run in the Woodward. Racehorses are meant to be challenged. A tough campaign is the mark of a good horse. A good horse can run on anything. 

And on and on and on.

The next time somebody tries to opine about things like that, tell him about Saginaw. Tell her about Kris Royal. Tell him about Sarava’s Dancer. Tell anybody that will listen about Live Lively. Tell them about the horses who died trying. Tell them how difficult it is to be responsible for the well-being of an athlete that can’t talk, can’t read, can’t do math, can’t understand what you say. 

Tell people training racehorses to perform is about balance. Fine, precise, delicate, minute, walk-the-tightrope balance. Tell them it’s about knowing where the tipping point is and striving to never – ever – go past it. Even though you know you will. 

A wise horse trainer once talked to me about the folly in trying to find out what a horse can’t do. Think about it. A horse wins. Its next race will be tougher. A horse improves, becomes proficient, wins again, maybe a stakes race. The next race will be more difficult. He wins again. He gets a tougher assignment, maybe a longer one, maybe one on a different racetrack or a different state or a different country, against different opponents with different tactics in different weather. Eventually, he or she will lose – probably (see Personal Ensign for the exception). He or she might also get hurt, might try too hard, might be involved in an accident.

Yes, it’s the nature of the game and of pretty much all competition, but take the time to appreciate what you see, the excellence in front of you. Marvel at what horses do. Then take a deep breath, pause, reflect and consider everything it took to produce that excellence. Don’t even think about the next challenge. Not yet, maybe not ever.

You don’t think Charlie LoPresti wants to try Wise Dan in a Grade 1 on dirt? 

You don’t think Bill Mott wonders, even a little, about Royal Delta catching the boys at a mile-and-a-quarter somewhere and galloping them into defeat? 

You don’t think Todd Pletcher wishes Cross Traffic were out there today, seeing if he could stretch his speed over 9 furlongs again? 

Of course they do. But they also play the balance game. They’re responsible. 

They train racehorses, who produce awe-inspiring, powerful, life-changing results. Marvel at that. Be awed by the achievement. Royal Delta didn’t do enough last weekend? You want more from Wise Dan besides an eight-race winning streak? That’s not enough for you? Cross Traffic’s five-start career includes three wins and two seconds. You think he should be doing more? You’ve read all about Paynter and his battle to live, right? If he wins today, stand back and appreciate it. Don’t wonder when he’ll run against Game On Dude, or start asking why they don’t try him on turf.

Appreciate achievement, don’t dream up the next challenge just yet. Racehorses are not racecars. You want to see a race to the limit, every week? Watch NASCAR. That’s horsepower. This is horse power.

Saginaw made the 41st start of his life Friday. It was his last. He fractured both sesamoids in his left front ankle while battling near the lead. He’d won 21 races, finished first, second or third in 12 consecutive starts. He led the country in wins last year, with 10. He was a model of consistency – hammering out New York-bred stakes wins the way Honda makes cars. Friday, it all came crashing down. The mortal being of Saginaw broke down. He was not a win machine. There were no new parts to install. Honda can replace a robot on the assembly line. You can’t replace a horse’s sesamoids. 

It’s sad, gut-wrenching, terrible. 

But he was flesh and blood and muscle the same way we are. Horses get hurt, they try too hard. Balance isn’t easy.

I will always believe Thoroughbreds like the competition, they like to run. They’re too good at it not to like it. Saginaw was great at it. He must have loved it. Friday, it killed him. Don’t even try to figure out why. He was mortal, remember. There’s no overheating engine or blown head gasket or loose wheel to blame. So why did it happen? Hah. Don’t ask why in this game, either. He had an issue, he took a bad step, he got bumped at the wrong time, he blinked, he shied at a dirt clod or a shadow and was off balance (even for half a second) . . . the tipping point can be that fine. 

It’s all that tenuous. Run as fast as you can. Leave in an ambulance. Win. Lose. Live. Die.

Anybody truly in the game understands that, though we all need a reminder now and then. 

Joe Clancy started his journalism career at the University of Delaware in 1986 or so, with a first byline about the presidential bid of Pete du Pont (the campaign obviously did not go well). Since then, he's covered high school sports, college sports, semi-pro baseball, the lifeguard Olympics, a pumpkin chunking competition, the odd Phillies and Orioles games and any number of topics involving Thoroughbred racing – for The Saratoga Special, Steeplechase Times, Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, Daily Racing Form, The Irish Field and others. He's been published in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Sun. He won the Eclipse Award and the David F. Woods Award for his coverage of the 2014 Preakness Stakes and is a multiple recipient of American Horse Publications awards for excellence. He is a writer, editor, publisher and owner of ST Publishing, Inc., parent company of the Internet site. He lives in Fair Hill, Md. with his wife Sam, sons Ryan, Jack and Nolan, but can be found wherever horses run.


  • Tim Saturday, 31 August 2013

    Start the petition to get Saginaw buried at the #spa I'll sign.

  • Mark Moran Saturday, 31 August 2013

    Joe, this is one of the best articles about horse racing that I've ever read. Spot on, and it said something that badly needed saying right now.

  • Walt Gekko Sunday, 01 September 2013

    It is a balancing act indeed:

    What happened to Saginaw from all accounts was simply a freak injury that could have easily happened anywhere. There was no indication something was going to happen with him (especially with five straight wins, including two wins in state-bred stakes in his last two starts) on Friday. He was eligible for the race he was in because he had run for the claiming price the year prior to Drawing Away Stables claiming him.

    A few of the owners are regulars on Facebook, and anyone who has seen their status updates knows how involved in the sport they are and how much they love their horses. Anyone who is familiar with the connections of Saginaw know how devastated they were with what happened to him. Even getting what has to be their biggest win to date with Strapping Groom in Saturday's Forego (Grade 1) at Saratoga will not erase the pain of losing Saginaw at all, even if it does help ease the pain quite a bit.

  • Dana Abell-Huffman Sunday, 01 September 2013

    Great article! I wish more trainers would appreciate their horses and how hard they try!

  • Turnbackthealarm Sunday, 01 September 2013

    Beautiful description of our sometimes brutal sport.

  • Bo Sunday, 01 September 2013

    That Sir was so well said! I hope that a lot of people read this article and understand that a horse is not a machine! It amazes me how some people think and that no matter how Great a horse is or how well he does they want more. Afraid this is the kind of world we live in today. I do so enjoy watching Wise Dan run, he tries so hard and he refuses to be beat and it is that moment in the race that makes such Great memories. Because that is what they are, the Greatness you are seeing is never to be repeated! His owner and Trainer as well as all the support team worry about his safety and well being not because of the money, but because they know that this kind of horse comes along once in a life time! I for one am enjoying them in every race for as long as I can and remembering God as Blessed us in this moment with Greatness!

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