When the Inmates Run the Asylum

Untapable forges to the front in the 2014 Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Untapable forges to the front in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Most of the time I’m a pretty mellow guy, but as a long-time horse racing fan, nothing makes my blood boil more than seeing posts advocating for a horse’s retirement following a bad effort or two on the racetrack.

After Untapable, the five-time Grade I winner and former Champion Three-Year-Old Filly finished fourth, beaten by 3 ½ lengths, in the Apple Blossom Stakes (an event she won last year), I saw just such a plea from a member of a Facebook group I’m a part of.

As racing fans, we constantly bemoan the fact that the stars of our sport aren’t around long enough for us to develop a true rooting interest in them, yet the minute — make that the second — a horse doesn’t perform up to expectations, the retirement pleas begin in earnest.

The great Seabiscuit started more than the last three Horse of the Year winners combined (four, if you count Wise Dan, a two-time winner, just once). If left to the better judgement of many of today’s racing “fans,” however, Laura Hillenbrand would have had nothing to write about. Seabiscuit lost his first 17 starts and surely should have been retired as a 2-year-old.

Seabiscuit with jockey John “Red” Pollard aboard (photo via www.tbgreats.com).

Seabiscuit with jockey John “Red” Pollard aboard (photo via www.tbgreats.com).

Worse, after he beat War Admiral in the Pimlico Special, it was another 480 days before the son of Hard Tack appeared in the winner’s circle again.  If left to social media trainers and horse lovers, Seabiscuit would have never avenged his two narrow losses and gone out a winner in the Santa Anita Handicap at the age of 7.

No one called for jockey Steve Cauthen’s retirement when he went on a 110-race losing skein in 1979, but had social media been a thing back then, I’m sure folks would have been insisting that his most famous mount, Affirmed, be sent to the sidelines. After crossing the wire first only to be disqualified for impeding his bitter rival Alydar in the Travers, the Triple Crown champ lost his next three starts in a row.

Affirmed didn’t win again until Laffit Pincay, Jr. took over the reins in the Charles H. Strub Stakes on Feb. 4, 1979 (ironically, Cauthen broke his losing streak on a Barrera horse that Pincay was too ill to ride — Father Duffy, a maiden with 10 previous starts).

I know some will argue that these cases are different — hindsight is always 20/10 and few will admit that they’d have been wrong, especially about a hypothetical scenario. Instead, they will insist that “you can tell” when a horse has soured on racing.

For example, when I suggested that perhaps Untapable is just not as good as she used to be, I was told that “she hasn’t won a race in over a year now. That’s a lot of bad days for a horse that went 6 out of 7 in her 3-year-old campaign and whose only loss was to the boys.”

Hmm. That sounds a lot like California Chrome.

After winning his first five starts as a 3-year-old, including the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, Chrome dropped five of his next six decisions. Yet, he looked pretty good in the Dubai World Cup on March 26, didn’t he? Like Untapable, California Chrome is five years old.

California Chrome captures the 2016 Dubai World Cup.

California Chrome captures the 2016 Dubai World Cup.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: That’s not a fair comparison. Males and females are different. Female horses sometimes lose interest in racing overnight.

OK, fair enough. But how do we know when a horse has lost its desire to run or it is simply not as good as it once was? Because if it is the latter, why should the horse be retired?

For the last two NBA seasons, Kobe Bryant has been a shell of his former self. Since he first became a starter during the 1998-99 season through the 2012-13 campaign, Bryant averaged 27.4 points per game on 45.5 percent shooting. Over the last three seasons, Bryant has averaged 18.9 PPG on 36.6 percent shooting.

Kobe Bryant Career Stats

But on Wednesday, in the final game of his career, Bryant gave Father Time the finger, scoring 60 points, while single-handedly outscoring the Utah Jazz in the fourth quarter and guiding his team to a 101-96 victory.

Likewise, Peyton Manning couldn’t hit the broad side of a Pappa John’s with a wrecking ball in the final year of his career, but he continued to play for the same reason that Bryant did — for the love of the game.

I’m not saying that horses should run until they no longer can. As their caretakers, human beings have a responsibility to make the best possible decisions on their behalf.

But we can’t have it both ways. We can’t claim that horses love to run — and I certainly believe that they do (just witness races in which a horse loses its jockey at the start) — while, at the same time, claiming that horses competing past their prime somehow constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Paseana won the Grade II Hawthorne Handicap at the age of 8. As a 5-year-old, Next Move lost three consecutive races by double-digit margins, yet came back to capture the Bay Shore against the boys and the Beldame five days later.

After being named Champion Three-Year-Old Filly in 1949 (tied with Wistful) and Champion Older Female Horse in 1950, Two Lea battled ringbone and was sideline for nearly two years. Coming back as a 6-year-old in 1952, the Calumet Farm mare lost four of her first six starts before closing out the year with four wins in five trips to post, including a scintillating victory in the prestigious Hollywood Gold Cup against the guys.

Can Untapable do the same? Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know that racing fans and horse lovers — true racing fans and horse lovers — shouldn’t be clamoring to put her out to pasture simply because she may have lost a step or two.

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