Horses Being Horses and "Never Give Up"

Dec. 4, 2012

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These days, as I walk across the Oaklawn parking lot and watch the racetrack, I am enjoying the live horses on their morning exercise.  There a very few involved in serious workouts.  Instead they are jogging and simply enjoying the time out of their stalls.  In short, they are horses being horses.  In older times horses were customarily given this time off between the Fall and Spring racing seasons.  The economics of the sport changed that some time ago and many are kept on their toes for competitions to which they will be shipped from their Oaklawn homes.  The Indian summer weather conditions of late November and early December have allowed them the luxury of getting to the track on a daily basis and that has been good for both man and beast in this area.

The other night I was awakened by the television in the background. I hadn’t turned it off and it was tuned to ESPN. On the TV was the late Jim Valvano, one of the most spirited basketball coaches of my time, who was speaking of his battle against cancer and his commitment to fight to the end, all the while being whatever kind of help he could be to others in the battle.

His famous words, “Don’t Give Up, Don’t Ever Give Up” have outlived the inspirational Italian, but remain as encouragement for the many who are living a day-to-day fight against this difficult disease.  As many of you who know me understand, I have given much of myself to the fight against cancer, moved as I was by the death of Oaklawn staffer, Chick Lang, Jr. many years ago. He shared some of the terror of carrying cancer in his otherwise ideal body through the later months of his struggle.  I’ve since seen others deal with the same issues.  That sort of determination expressed by Valvano and displayed in the fights by friends like fellow staffers Lang, Donna Trant, Judy Breshears, Gloria Pinkney and others has inspired me to do whatever I can to help rid our society of cancer and make life for cancer survivors be filled with as much quality time as possible.

Occasionally I see the courage of those survivors in horses as well. In such times they are not just “horses being horses”, but they are being faced with difficulty and showing a desire to overcome. The best example of this to me in recent times is the story of the Bob Baffert-trained Paynter, a late developer who narrowly lost the Belmont Stakes in a surprisingly brilliant showing.  After shipping to Monmouth Park and winning the Haskell Stakes, positioning himself for a late-season run at an Eclipse Award, he encountered a series of sicknesses which would have brought down a lesser animal.  Instead he fought off a case of the dreaded laminitis and eventually successfully came through surgery for another serious problem, colitis, requiring surgeons to successfully remove an abscess located between the small intestine and large colon. He was on his feet in no time.

Now there is some hope that he’ll return to the racetrack in 2013.  His story is the racing “feel good” story of the year.

Kudos to the Zayat family for going to whatever extremes were necessary to use every means available to save the life of this wonderful animal.  I have never seen Paynter in person, although I hope to do so.  He has a reputation, much like Zenyatta, of being very sociable.  He supposedly loves red peppermints and has the class to spit out the green ones. 

It may take him a long time to return to racing condition.  But the return of Paynter should be heralded as the great story that it is.  In this time where horses are systematically turned out after lesser injuries, Paynter’s return will show the spirit that we have learned to love in our horses.  Not just horses being horses, but horses being models for the handling of those which are injured.  If horses can talk, they probably already know about Paynter.

At the same time as I write this inspirational message during the holiday season, I see the ugly mess developing in south Florida between Calder and the horsemen.  I hope this turns out better than the scene playing out in Washington about what is called the “fiscal cliff."  In the face of stories of courage, like that of Paynter, these petty fights in Florida and Washington show some of the worst side of mankind.  I wonder what the horses would think, if it mattered to them at all.  Paynter appears to have learned from Valvano,  “Never Give Up.”         

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