May 03, 2006
The Kentucky Derby: It's different when you live here.
So I go surfing to and fro and I come up a mention that someone has extensively covered the Kentucky Derby. I appreciate the admirable coverage of the Bluegrass State and the event that the world knows us for, but I cringe when people mention the finery and tradition that is the Derby and horse racing in general. Horse racing gets a makeover every first Saturday in May to an extreme degree. Sure, Louisville throws a great party, and the state does want the cameras focused on the Commonwealth for the spectacle, but there is a very real underbelly to the industry for those of us who have to endure it 24/7.
The two greatest questions to ask aloud, especially to the right people, is to wonder about two of the Derby's star horses: Ferdinand and Alydar.
Ferdinand was the 1986 Kentucky Derby Winner with Willie Shoemaker up. The Shoe is a legendary jockey, who at the time of the victory became the oldest winner of the Derby. The race wasn't spectacular, but did feature Ferdinand coming from the very back of the pack to take the win. Shoe ran the horse masterfully, staying out of the lead, yet out of traffic to guide him to the win. The red bay then won the 1987 Horse of the Year after besting the '87 Derby winner, Alysheba in the Breeders' Cup Classic. This is the Tournament of Champions signature race, if you will allow the comparison.
Like many horses of Ferdinand's fame, your immediate next job is to become available for stud. While I could keep everyone entertained with how a horse is conceived, I will just say that it is a spectacle to behold - oh, and profitable, too. Keep in mind that making money off your equine athlete is the name of the game. Stud fees are charged based upon the perception of how well your horse provides future money-makers. If he succeeds for a time, then the fee increases and with continued success you can even drop the promise of a live foal. If your horse declines in stud - either not producing much or having problems even conceiving a foal - then your bargaining chip, nay meal ticket declines.
So goes the story of Ferdinand. Unsuccessful at Claiborne Farm in nearby Paris, Kentucky, the horse was shipped to a stud farm in Japan. The story takes turns from there, but essentially the horse continued to disappoint. In July 2001, his name was de-registered, meaning he had met his demise.
No problem, right? 18 years (1983-2001) is a good life for a horse you might say. It sure is, but in the case of Ferdy it was the end of his life that mattered. He was sold to a slaughterhouse to be processed into pet food. Period. He didn't produce and he was executed. And this is part of the nature that is the horse racing industry. Oh sure, in the article the Claiborne farm people were upset at the story. And to be fair, it wasn't the original Japanese farm that slaughtered the animal, but then again, if he was such a legend at your farm, couldn't you as Claiborne Farm, simply have donated him to the Kentucky Horse Park? The Park is a scant 20 miles away in Georgetown, Ky. Ferdinand could have lived a life being shown to kids and adults alike on a leisurely visit, but instead, the fine folks for sure at Claiborne thought it best to get a little money while they could. I hold them just as responsible.
Alydar (1975-1990) was a champion breed. Performing at stud only eclipsed his fine racing career. The big horse was locked into a grand 1978 duels with Affirmed for all three Triple Crown races - Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. Alydar would wind up second in all three races by a combined distance of less than two lengths.
At stud, he produced the aforementioned Alysheba and virtually any "Aly" in horse racing has a lineage (direct or indirect) to the great sire. He would also produce 1989 Belmont winner, Easy Goer and be a part of the lineage for 1991 Derby winner, Strike the Gold.
Alydar was held in stud at the famous Calumet Farm here in Lexington. Calumet is the crown jewel of the city. When you fly into Blue Grass Airport, approaching from the northeast, you fly over the majestic farm and its 23-miles of white fencing surrounding the huge estate. Alydar was the money-maker for the farm, even during lean times coinciding with the oil busts of the mid-80's.
Alydar's fate would cross paths with an adventurous but driven downhome Kentucky boy who married into the aristocracy of Calumet Farm and the Wright family. J.T. Lundy once dreamed of running the Calumet (Camelot) empire. The long version of the story can be found in a September 2001 edition of Texas Monthly. The article by Skip Hollandsworth begins in Alydar's stall in 1990, complete with broken door and ends outside a Houston courtroom in 2000. In between is a paper trail discovered by an aspiring assistant U.S. attorney in Texas. What she found was the cold evidence that Alydar's accident in the stall - a broken leg due to supposedly kicking the stall door with tremendous force - was more of a hit than an unfortunate accident.
"Alydar was Lundy's ATM" per the article and the horse was worth over $36 million in insurance policies covering an accidental and untimely death. Three weeks before having to make a critical $15 million dollar payment to a Houston bank, Alydar had his "accident".
The Lexington Herald-Leader knows which side of their bread the horse racing's butter lands on. To say the industry carries power in Lexington is a bit of an understatement. Nothing gets done here without the help of the horse industry. Alas, the Lexington media, fresh off their 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning article about the corrupt University of Kentucky basketball program, didn't even think to write one article raising a question about the timely death of the crown jewel's most prized stallion. Hence, this is why you have to read from a publication in Texas about the whole series of events.
The horse was murdered. Why? Money. Period. This Saturday, you will hear the telling tales on ABC about how much these people love their horses, treating them like family. For the most part, this is true, but revert to the stories of Ferdinand and Alydar to get a true picture of the entire scope of the horse racing industry. Even an Extreme Makeover: Horse Racing Edition can't wipe away those blemishes.
- ▼ May (8)