The run for the roses and the trouble with horseracing

Saturday, May 3 marks the 140th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Saturday, May 3 marks the 140th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Time once again for the Kentucky Derby (6 p.m. tonight). Tara and Johnny will be there, presumably to talk fashion, not horseflesh. And there will be the usual breast-beating about whether the Cinderella winner – it’s always a Cinderella winner, with California Chrome this year’s front-runner and feel-good story, though some like Wicked Strong – will go on to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown.

A confession: I’ve always loved horseracing, particularly the Triple Crown, which is at the heart of “Criterion,” the third novel in my series, “The Games Men Play.” As a child, I once memorized all the Triple Crown winners. My favorite is Affirmed, a racehorse so smart that you could call him by name and he’d come to you. Or so Lou Sahadi, his biographer, once told me. There’s just something about that select club of excellence, its distinctive personalities and the way the horses thunder around the track, all that sleek power and speed. Plus, they’re beautiful animals.

But beauty often goes hand-in-hand with brutality – at least in my books, which deal with the world of sports. A natural history curator and horse owner recently told me that I should have no truck with horseracing. The horses are bred for speed and the stud market, shot up with drugs, whipped and shocked into performing – which leaves them vulnerable to devastating injury. All of this is addressed in “Criterion,” which is told in large part from the viewpoint of the title racehorse. Cri sees these abuses and tries very hard – with the support of Belle, his stable mate, with whom he’s smitten; Old Red, his trainer; and most of the members of the family that owns him – to win all his races and escape the lash. But he can’t escape the twisted personality of the family’s scion, a man trapped by the past and his hatred for his younger brother, a dashing polo player with whom Cri feels a special kinship.

Among the other characters are their sister, Isa, an equestrian torn apart by her passion for the tortured David McKitrin “Kit” Glendenning, a fellow equestrian trying to redeem a family name sullied by a father who killed horses for the insurance money.

I’ve been around horse people – trainers, racetrack operators, breeders, riders, sportswriters – long enough to know that they see the abusers in the minority. Few animals are better cared for than a race or show horse, they say. Like Springsteen, these animals are born to run.

Yes, I say, in a field maybe. But Secretariat and Seattle Slew – Affirmed’s immediate Triple Crown predecessors – weren’t born racing around the oval at the Belmont. They were trained to do that, and they had no choice.

That’s what makes a four-legged athlete different from a two-legged one – although if you read a book like Andre Agassi’s “Open Season” you have to wonder how many 4-year-old tennis prodigies really knew what they were committing to. (Nonetheless, in my new novel “Water Music” – the first book in “The Games Men Play” series – 9-year-old prodigy Alí Iskandar is pretty certain about a life on the hard courts. But then, he sees tennis as his family’s ticket out of war-torn Iraq.)

It’s a slippery slope, our relationship with the animal kingdom. Where do you draw the line? What about the dog track? What about those dog shows everyone seems so enamored of? What about eating meat? Wearing leather and fur?

In the Bible, God commands Adam and Eve to have dominion over the earth.

And we’ve been fighting over what kind of dominion ever since.