Of all the Kentucky Derbys run over the past 25 years -- from Genuine Risk's triumphant rush to the lead off the final turn in 1980 to long-shot Funny Cide's shocking charge to victory in this year's renewal -- none had the truly brilliant signature moment for which the '86 running will long be remembered.
It was the year of Ferdinand, an attractive chestnut with a golden clump of forelock between his ears and a white star above his luminous brown eyes. Ferdy was a neat-looking colt, a son of the great Nijinski II, one of the thoroughbred racing's premier stallions. Of course, what gave his Derby the status of fable, an enduring place in Derby lore, was the fact that two of the most revered horsemen in America -- legedary jockey Bill Shoemaker and trainer Charles Whittingham -- were at his side along the way.
It was the Season of the Geezers. A few weeks earlier, the 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus had just become the oldest golfer ever to win the Masters, and down in Louisville the gray-haired, 54-year-old Shoemaker was angling to become the oldest rider to win the Derby and the 73-year-old Whittingham to finally win the roses for the very first time. The year before, when Ferdinand was 2, Charlie had introduced The Shoe, his old friend and favorite jock, to the promising blueblood: "We're going to have some fun with this horse," Charlie told him. "May even win the Derby with him."
No one gave them much of a chance -- the crowds sent Ferdy off at 17-1 odds -- and not even as they turned for home, with the colt blocked behind a wall of horses, did he appear to have a shot. It was right there, in one magical instant, that Shoemaker and his mount turned the classic into a rare work of Derby art. As two horses drifted apart in front of him, The Shoe reacted instinctively. Tugging on his left rein, he drove Ferdy for the breach, splitting horses along the way, then set sail on the rail in pursuit of the leaders. Pouring it on, Ferdinand ran them down in the cavalry charge to the wire and raced off to win it by 2½ lengths.
It was an unforgettable performance, and the memory of it is one of the reasons why the recent news of out Japan about the horse's demise was greeted with emotions that ranged from outrage to sadness to a keening, here-we-go-again despair. The thoroughbred industry's most-respected trade publication, the Blood-Horse, recently reported that Ferdinand, exiled to a breeding farm in Japan after failing as a stallion in America, had been "disposed of" a year ago. The word "shobun," used by owner Yoshikazu Watanabe to describe Ferdinand's fate, is the Japanese horse industry's camouflage for saying Ferdy had been killed in a slaughterhouse. So, it may be assumed, America's 112th Kentucky Derby winner, at age 19, was either consumed as dinner filets by humans -- Japanese and Europeans, unlike Americans, eat horse meat -- or ground up into pet food.
"I was horrified," says Michele Oren, the manager of Exceller Farm in upstate New York, a haven for old or broken-down horses rescued from New England racetracks. "This is still allowed to go on? I couldn't believe that a horse of this magnitude was shipped overseas and his whereabouts not monitored. It's scary. Kentucky Derby winners are not meant to be a part of the food chain. No horse is. When I heard about Ferdinand's death, I thought, No, not again!"
Indeed, the farm where Oren works is named after a horse who had met a similar fate. Exceller was one of the finest racehorses in the sport's golden age of the 1970s. Owned by a legendary Texas oilman and Kentucky horse breeder, Nelson Bunker Hunt, Exceller won major stakes races in Europe and America, $1.64 million in purses in all, and earned his brightest laurel as the conqueror of the mighty Seattle Slew in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, one of the most thrilling races run in that decade. Exceller did not achieve much success as a stallion here and, in 1991, was sold to a breeder in Sweden. When the Daily Racing Form went looking for him six years later, as part of a "whatever-happened-to" series, the paper discovered that the 24-year-old horse, though in good health and still able to breed, had been destroyed three months earlier on the orders of his bankrupt owner. The horse had become a liability.
The woman who befriended Exceller in his years at the farm told a wrenching story of the horse's final moments as he was led to slaughter, when he heard the screams and caught wind of the smell of blood. "I made an appointment (at the slaughterhouse) because I wanted to get it over with quick," she told the Daily Racing Form, "but they were very busy when we got there and we had to wait. Exceller knew what was going on; he didn't want to be there. Standing with him like that ... it made me feel like Judas."
It was thus that Exceller became the poster-horse for a clamorous movement seeking to ban the slaughter of all horses for human consumption, and revelations on the death of Ferdinand have served to rekindle the passions of those seeking to end the slaughter of horses in America. The movement already has its own stalking horse in the form of a House of Representative bill, HR 857, entitled "The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act." Introduced in February by Reps. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., and John Spratt, D-S.C., passage of the bill would make it a crime to slaughter a horse for human consumption; to import or export horses from this country for that purpose; or to transport, sell or purchase them to that end. It would not only shutter the two remaining horse slaughterhouses in the U.S., both foreign-owned and located in north Texas, but also would prevent horses from being shipped for slaughter to Canada, where tens of thousands of U.S.-based horses are dispatched annually to be prepared for dinner tables from Paris to Tokyo. Of the 7 million horses living in the U.S., nearly 60,000 are slaughtered here for human consumption every year, with thousands more sent to their deaths north of the border.
The way these horses are handled -- how they are torturously transported in cramped, double-decker trailers built for shorter animals, often without water for hundreds of miles -- is almost as repugnant to human values as the way in which they are killed in the abattoir. They are bludgeoned with four-inch captive bolt guns that drive spikes into their skulls. But horses tend to toss their heads a lot, especially when unnerved by the smell of blood, and repeated misses with the gun can lead to scenes beyond the macabre. "I have a tape showing a horse who did not die instantaneously," says New York breeder/owner John Hettinger, a leader in the fight to ban the butchery. "The horse is thrashing around on the ground. It's just horrible. Turning a blind eye to horse slaughter is a disgrace. What we need to do is get behind that House bill."
Hettinger is not alone in his work to stop the roving vans of "killer buyers" at the tracks. the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), founded in 1982, has set up a network of 22 farms for horses they rescue from the racetrack. Four of them are havens adjacent to reformatories or prisons, where inmates care for the animals and often bond with them, forming emotional connections with these four-legged animals that they have found so elusive with the bipeds beyond the walls. "These animals are completely non-judgmental," explained one male prisoner at the TRF's Blackburn facility in Lexington, Ky. "They accept me for who I am, no questions asked, and that's a first for me."
Exceller Farm, a 75-acre tract in upstate New York, was donated by Hettinger to the TRF in March of 2000, and so far it has been home to 176 rescued horses, many of them sore-legged old warriors from small racetracks in New England. "I have gotten horses in incredibly poor shape," Oren says. "Swollen ankles, swollen knees. It's amazing they could even race at all." The TRF obtained them from their owners, either as donations or by offering sums competitive with the killer buyers' bounty of $1 per pound. Of the 176 head, 138 already have been adopted by people who have turned them into eventing horses, polo ponies, jumpers and trail horses.
No one knows for sure how many racetrack horses are swept up yearly by killer buyers, but Diana Pikulski, the TRF's executive director, figures "it is in the low thousands." That may be way too many for horse fanciers, but advocates for HR 857 have met resistance from those who believe that a horse, like a pig or a cow, is nothing more than glorified livestock, an agricultural commodity -- an animal whose owner has the right to race him, or show him, or hook him to a plow, or sell him to a Texas slaughterhouse, even if he ends up a main course in Normandy. Nothing more infuriates a fancier of horseflesh than to hear such declarations.
"You see the movie 'Seabiscuit?' " asks Jerry Finch, the founder of Habitat for Horses, a Texas group that rescues abused equines. "It says more than anything I can say about the connection between horses and people. Red Pollard, Seabiscuit's jockey, had a connection with that horse that people simply don't have with cows or pigs. The horse is a companion animal. They walked with us throughout the West. They carried us through wars. They helped us move from caves to plains. The Roman Empire would not have existed without the horse. To think that man is digging so low as to permit the slaughter and eating of our companions is atrocious. Eating horses, that's like eating dogs and cats."
Michael Blowen finds the practice particularly repellant when the horses have names like Ferdinand and Exceller. A retired movie critic for the Boston Globe, Blowen recently founded an organization called Old Friends, whose goal is to find homes for retired thoroughbred stallions, buying the old studs if he must. His dream is to acquire a Kentucky farm where old stallions -- especially those who had failed in America and were exiled overseas -- could return to a life of ease on the rolling landscapes of the Blue Grass State. He even enlisted the help of Kim Zito, the wife of trainer Nick Zito, after she came to him worried about the eventual fate of Strike the Gold, the colt her husband had trained to win the 1991 Kentucky Derby. The horse had failed as a stallion in America and was standing at stud in Turkey, in the service of the Turkish National Stud, along with the 1993 Kentucky Derby winner, Sea Hero, another failure here. Blowen also has his eye on three other famous racehorses who won the Derby and Preakness, only to get beat in the Belmont Stakes: Alysheba (1987), Charismatic (1999) and War Emblem (2002). Alysheba is at stud in Saudi Arabia, Charismatic and War Emblem are in Japan.
Saving workaday racehorses from slaughter in North America is one matter; saving famous racehorses, who failed as stallions and are now overseas, is quite another. Through a Lexington lawyer, Blowen has been in touch with the Turkish National Stud, hoping to acquire Strike the Gold and Sea Hero once their days as stallions are over. Similarly, he plans to reach out to those foreign horsemen in charge of Alysheba, Charismatic and War Emblem, who has turned out to be a "shy breeder," reluctant to mount his mares. Blowen created a Web site, oldfriendsequine.com, and he was getting four to six visitors a day when, suddenly, the Blood-Horse broke the Ferdinand story. At once he was getting 700 hits a day and e-mails from all over the world asking: "Where can I donate money to Old Friends?" He has raised $15,000 in less than two weeks.
The response has staggered him. "I'm totally, completely, utterly overwhelmed," Blowen says. He can see it now: a farm in Kentucky where five Derby winners have adjoining paddocks. "People from all over the world would come here," Blowen says. "Where else could you stand in one spot and see five Kentucky Derby winners at one time! Each with a two-acre paddock, each with separate living quarters. It's like having Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Jerry West in one place. You wouldn't even need appearance fees. We could create a tremendous tourist attraction in Kentucky."
Blowen says he would erect two monuments at the farm's main gate. One would say Exceller, the other Ferdinand. "Subtle reminders," Blowen says.
Of two surpassing horses who had earned a kinder fate.
Bill Nack, a former horse racing writer for Sports Illustrated, recently published an anthology of his magazine stories: "My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money and the Sporting Life."