The Betrayal of Smarty Jones

When Smarty Jones won the Preakness, after winning the Derby, the world woke up to his existence and Americans started thinking that maybe he was the Seabisquit of our time. Back then we were coming out of the great depression. Tensions in the world were mounting and another world war brewing. Americans needed something to make them feel good about their country and themselves. Seabisquit was a little guy who nobody thought stood a chance against the mighty thoroughbreds of his day. His trainer, jockey and owners had a lot of history–some good, some bad. This gorgeous little horse with the huge heart charmed the country and made us forget our problems for at least a little while.

Much like Seabisquit, Smarty Jones has owners, trainers and a jockey with history–some good, some bad. He is a natural born hero–small, sweet, easy-going and well treated. I am a huge animal lover and though I come from a long line of jockeys, trainers and breeders, I think thoroughbred racing is inhumane. In fact, I find the whole process of capturing wild horses, putting big metal bits in their mouths, throwing saddles on their backs and hanging on while they buck and kick until they’re too worn down to go on, abominable. They call it “breaking” because it does just that. It breaks their spirit. From then on they are beasts of burden who serve at the pleasure of their human masters. And, unlike, steeplechases, track racing especially bothers me because it’s so unnatural. Horses are not stock cars. And then there’s the part where they get whipped so they’ll run faster. That’s where they lose me completely.

So, when I heard that Smarty had won the Preakness by 7 lengths without having a crop laid on him, I was intrigued. I’ve watched that race and they’re right. Stewart Elliott never touched him. So I’m thinking, maybe this small, mellow, sweet-as-all-get-out horse can make it look cool to win with no whippings thus affecting change for all horses in future races whose jockeys and trainers want to be like Smarty’s. I’m in.

Finally, the day of the Belmont arrives. 92% of the country says they’re going to watch. What a captivating story. How bad do we in America need a hero tight now? And they’re off. Smarty came out strong and stayed strong through the whole race. I was very excited, as was the entire crowd. His odds were 1 to 5, so no one, especially the bookmakers in Vegas, expected him to lose.

Now, if you watch the race carefully, you’ll see that Smarty had a great start and stayed ahead for the first half of the track. I was thinking, OK, this is good. In the home stretch he takes off like a shot and gets about 3 lengths ahead. Now I’m jumping up and down screaming. Then, for some completely incomprehensible reason, Mr. Elliott starts to whip him. He starts hitting him and you can see Smarty’s head snap back. He whipped him over and over again for the rest of the race and you could see how it was getting harder for Smarty to run. Yes, maybe he was tired, Belmont Park being a long track and all, but does anybody really think that whipping a small, good natured pony with a riding crop while he’s exhausted and trying to finish a race was helping him run faster? Not this horse. You could just see it in his gait, his head and ears. He was beat, literally. He was being beaten and it took everything he had just to finish that last 100 yards. What a betrayal this was to this kind, unique animal.

I cried–well everybody cried. Just when we need something good to happen, what do we get? More brutality. So now I am wondering, wouldn’t it be a humane move to change the rules so that none of the jockeys carry crops and make it so none of the horses would ever get whipped again? That way, it would be across the boards and a win-win for the jockeys, the trainers and the owners as well as the horses. Maybe they’d be less temperamental. Maybe Rock Hard 10 wouldn’t fight going into the gate all the time and thoroughbreds would be a little less high-maintenance. But I just came across a website where you can buy whips autographed by your favorite jockey. So I’m guessing that’s not going to happen any time soon.

In the end it boils down to the fact that some animals just refuse to be mistreated. They have too much heart and too much soul. I think Smarty Jones was one of those animals and his jockey and the racing world in general have no one but themselves to blame that this precious creature just couldn’t keep up while he was being flogged.

Ms. Burgwin’s writings have appeared in Time, Newsweek, New York Magazine, Counterpunch, Alternet and OpEdNews as well as several other online Op Ed sites. She is on the Board of Aid Afghanistan and one of the contributors to the Peace Project in Assisi, Italy.