May 28, 2010

Red Dead Redemption: One More Reason to Love It (Hint: The Horses)

I am a true fangirl when it comes to Rockstar video games; they can almost do no wrong in my book.  That's why I was so thrilled to come across this article on how the Red Dead Redemption development team spent so much time and effort on making the horses in the game realistic.  They declare that the game's horses are "like nothing else in gaming."  And when you check out the trailer, you definitely see the payoff.  As an avid gamer who also loves horses, I really have to hold my tongue when playing most video games.  The horses typically look rather ugly and block-like, and by don't even approach correct movement.  The Red Dead Redemption horses look really nice.  To a trained horsewoman, there's still much room for improvement, but I definitely won't be embarassed when playing this game.  Now if they could only get the money to do this for actual horse-centric video games.

May 25, 2010

Shocking! Casinos Aren't the Cure to Horseracing's Woes

Came across a lovely article by John Clay that simply stated what I've been trying to tell anyone who'll listen, for years:  slots machines are not the way to go when trying to re-invigorate the horse-racing industry.  I really don't see how this is particularly shocking or illogical for anyone who has actually visited a racetrack with slot machines.  I'm speaking anecdotally here, as I don't have a lot of figures to back me up, but it should be clear to most people that slot machines and horses are apples and oranges.  The people there for the apples are not interested in the oranges.  And vice versa.  Maybe the casinos inject some cash into the overall facility, but not the daily handle.  You cannot convince me otherwise.

Especially when I see tracks like Keeneland, Saratoga and Del Mar making loads of money, running fewer races with bigger purses.  And now we can add Monmouth to this list.  This track looked forwards to the future and opted to cut the meet way back, bolstered purses and generally made the track a destination spot.  The key here is to make horseracing chic.  Accessible, but glamorous.  This is the oldest trick in the book.  Just look at Hollywood; they've been peddling that game for decades.  And frankly it seems like the easiest thing in the world to glam up horseracing.  It already possesses a rich and colorful history; the players are riddled with the rich and famous (or could-be famous).  Capture this fabulousness and you'll capture a whole new generation.  I mean, it shouldn't be surprising that Churchill Downs' nighttime racing caught on so dramatically:  it's sexy, fun and a brand new option for people looking for a good night out. 

People, this is not rocket science.  If you're lacking in ideas, please feel free to give me a call.  With the right backing I could be a real thought leader in this movement.  Seriously.  The industry needs me.  :)

May 21, 2010

Sloths Are Even More Wonderful Than I Imagined

Via Jezebel, I discovered this amazing video of baby sloths at a sloth orphanage.  I grew up reading all the Gerald Durrell books and whenever he mentioned sloths, I always imagined such wonderful, exotic, fascinating creatures.  Funnily enough, though the animals are barely doing anything in this video, they have managed to live up to all those expectations:

Meet the sloths from Amphibian Avenger on Vimeo.

May 20, 2010

Joe Louis, The Saddleseat Rider; Also Entitled, This Post's Devolution into Questioning the Lack of Diversity in the Horse World

I was poking around the LIFE magazine online archives and came across this wonderful gem -- Joe Louis, famous heavyweight boxing champion (yeah, that Joe Louis), was a bit of a horse fanatic.  He rode, he bought a gorgeous farm which he turned into a riding stable and horse show grounds, and he was even instrumental in organizing "America's first all-Negro horse show," as LIFE magazine terms it.  AND, all you saddleseat fans, he appeared to be a saddleseat rider!

I'm not a fan of boxing, but I have more than a passing interest in it.  It's not like I'll watch bouts on television, but it's more a matter of me becoming a bit obsessed with some boxers themselves.  I suppose it's because I've always had a bit of excess agression in me, to the point where I could understand why you would want to go stand in a ring and abuse yourself (and your opponent) like that.  There's just this deep, primitive understanding of it that resides within me.  Don't worry -- I don't plan on beating anyone least not yet, but my husband stands warned.  :)

And now I find it even more fascinating to discover that two boxers, in whom I have always taken a bit of an interest, were / are true animal lovers, in a way that I find very tender and endearing -- Joe Louis, with his horses and Mike Tyson, with his pigeons.  If you're interested in a really moving portrait of Mike Tyson as more than just a emotionally damaged, violent force of nature, I cannot recommend more highly, Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew Blechman.  Not only will it compell you to completely reconsider how you feel about pigeons, there is a wonderful chapter on Mike Tyson and his love and obsession with pigeons, specifically racing pigeons.  If I remember correctly, the author was not even really permitted to speak with Tyson -- apparently Tyson takes his birds so seriously, that it seems he was fearful to allow that side of him to be exposed to public scrutiny -- but he still manages to humanize him in a way that I never before considered possible.  I honestly cannot recommend this book enough, if only for this chapter.

But now the discovery that Joe Louis was also an animal lover.  And more importantly -- HORSE lover!  I have been truly won over.  Someday soon maybe I will post on the long tradition of black saddleseat horsemen in this country; it is a rather fascinating phenomenon to me.  Saddleseat obviously originates from the need for comfortable, quiet horses to oversee the large estates in the South, but what no one really likes to admit is that the horses and trappings associated with the discipline were also signifiers of a certain class.  Which inherently means that not only were the most beautiful, smoothest, most high-steppingest horses signifiers of wealth, but also of race.  It was the purview of the wealthy white citizens to spend time showing off their best horses.

Yet, similar to the world of horse-racing, Saddleseat became dominated by a load of now-semi-forgotten, talented black trainers whose prowess with handling and gentling the best of the best movers could not be denied.  So, in a strange twist of events, this genteel sport was subverted by these gifted trainers, and despite their skin color, they crossed class boundaries.  Seems like Joe Louis understood this, especially when you consider that he put on the first horse show for African-Americans only.  And there he was, front and center, decked out with a horse originally bred to be proudly ridden by the type of folks who claimed to 'own' his grandparents.  He made it to the big-time and bought the ultimate status symbol.

Yeah, yeah....who cares if that wasn't his main goal in doing saddleseat.  Sure, he probably just loved horses and saddleseat was in its heydey in the 30s and 40s.  Frankly it doesn't matter what his motivation was, he was still defying class and race distinctions and I love it.  The problem I have has always been this: where is the diversity in riding nowdays?  I don't often see people writing about and speaking about this, but it has always been a point of worry and guilt in my mind.  Maybe it was just especially apparent to me growing up in Virginia where my class at school was over 50% non-Caucasian students, but not once did I encounter a person of color riding a horse during the 8 years I rode there.  Something about that never set right with me, but I either never dared speak about it or I just never could articulate my concerns.  Even now, it still appears to be a sea of only white skin.  Oh, forgive me, except for the groom and stablehands...even the jockeys (one of the more lowly positions in the horseracing world it seems to me).  Those are the positions in which I see a preponderence of diversity and I gotta be honest:  That really makes me uncomfortable.  I wish more people were willing to talk about this in the horse world.  

May 13, 2010

FEI Stewards Manual Annex -- Head Position

The guidelines have been published.  I am impressed that they really spent the time on really giving good direction as to what does and does not constitute hyperflexion, while still allowing stewards to rely on their own good judgment.  Great start!

May 7, 2010

Official Trailer for Secretariat

While I know I'll watch this regardless of the quality, so far this trailer is not offering me any proof that it will overcome the Disney taint of feel-good, children's animal movies.  Well, except maybe for John Malkovich.  He looks awesome in this. 

Which makes me wonder where they went wrong when, in a movie entitled Secretariat, I am most drawn to a human character.  At least so far.  Trailers are often really bad indicators of the quality of a film, so I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, but Hollywood would do well to go back and watch Phar Lap a few times to remember how to make a wonderfully engaging story about a race horse.  One in which the horse is plays a true starring role, simply because of the realistic bond between him and his groom.  That was one of the issues I had with Seabiscuit -- it was all about the story, the people surrounding the horse, but the horse just didn't present a strong figure that I engaged with.

May 5, 2010

A Horse You Should Know -- Canonero II

I defy you to watch that video and not be desperate to learn more about the story of Canonero II.  Previously unknown to me, I discovered this horse's amazing story a couple of years ago, oddly enough in a book entitled, The Best and Worst of Thoroughbred Racing by Steve Davidowitz.  I have an obsession with books whose authors make broad proclamations and aren't afraid of pulling punches when it comes to their opinions.  Gee, I can't imagine why....

Deemed "The Greatest Upset of Modern Times" by the author -- though whether this still holds true after Mine That Bird's Derby win last year, I don't know and don't particularly care all that much -- this horse has a much more compelling story (at least in my humble opinion).  Canonero II was the people's horse.  A story for the ages.  One of those once-in-a-lifetime, the stars aligned at just the right moment, in just the right way kind of story.  And the casual racing fan (case in point - me!) had never heard his name before. 

Just take another look at the video.  Starting from the 18th position and slowly picking off his competitors...there is greatness there.  Luck may have touched his forelock that day, but Lady Luck clearly wasn't the only reason he won.  He had talent, loads of it to judge by that race alone.

However, after that race, Davidowitz writes "It seems that most did not believe what their eyes had seen.  They called Canonero a fluke, a skinny horse who looked undernourished who somehow had managed to win the Kentucky Derby through a lot of blind luck.  [...]  It was embarassing that Canonero had just beaten the best-bred, most expensive horses in the land, most of them born and raised in Kentucky."

But despite all the sneering, he broke out of the gate fast once again in the Preakness, raced head to head with the speedster of the race, Eastern Fleet, and then proceeded to zoom past him, setting a new track record.

God, what a story!  To hear it from Davidowitz's ears, the horse was an unwanted, crooked-leg yearling, sold to an Edgar Caibett in Venezuela for $1,200.  He didn't show much talent as a 2-year-old, but that changed as a 3-year-old.  He appeared to blossom into a formidable stakes winner.

What happened next is almost not to be believed...Amazingly enough, the decision was made to ship the talented colt to Kentucky for the Derby.  Why on earth they considered that they had much of a shot, even with the wins in Venezuela, I just can't fathom.  Anyway, to get the colt to Louisville, his owner booked him on a cargo plane to Miami where he would be quarantined for 48 hours before the 1,000 mile trailer trip to his final destination.  "Unfortunately a terrible tropical storm broke out in midflight, forcing the pilot to return to Venezuela, where Canonero had to remain on the place for about 12 hours before a revised flight plan was approved for a restart.  Once in the air, engine trouble forced still another return to Venezuela.  About six hours later, the third attempted flight took off and detoured an extra four hours to avoid more turbulence en route to Miami.  Everybody on board, including Canonero, had suffered some form of illness during the arduous flights.

Upon arrival in Florida, Canonero was kept onboard the aircraft, sitting on the Tarmac for the duration of the 48 hours of quarantine.  The van to Louisville turned out to be a single-horse trailer hooked up behind a 1965 Oldsmobile.  Arias, the leading trainer in Venezuela, and his groom, Pedro Quintero, shared the driving chores straight through the 26-hour trip."

Not surprisingly, when the horse finally made it to Louisville, he looked pitiful.  By all reports, his ribs were clearly visible and people were publicly exhorting the trainer and owner to rethink the horse's entry.  His subsequent win was deemed a fluke, a complete stroke of luck and one which would be erased come Preakness Day.

One of the most interesting aspects of this story is that Arias, his trainer, was a bit of a maverick in the horse-training world.  When all other horses were put into sharp works prior to the Preakness, a race that favors speed, Canonero was galloping slowly for a half mile.  That's it.  People took this as a sign of his overall lack of talent, when they really should have looked to this trainer as a bit of a unique genius - the likes of which may never be seen again.  Particularly in hindsight, as his horse won the Preakness handily.  Canonero didn't win the Belmont - he had a case of hives and likely should have been scratched.  But interestingly, Davidowitz remarks, "[...]Arias never was accepted as a bona fide training talent despite his success, mostly because he used highly unorthodox training methods that did not accent speed.

Ignored and dismissed as lucky, Arias was not even invited to attend the Kentucky Derby trainers' dinner that always includes ever trainer of a Kentucky Derby horse, nor was he given any token recognition at the end of the year for developing Canonero..." 

Imagine this - a trainer who pulled off a feat that few others could have or even would have attempted.  He was essentially shunned from the pantheon of great racing trainers simply because he was different.  What a ridiculously stupid, insular view.  He clearly had a training genius that eludes modern trainers.  And even if they did exist nowadays, what would be their incentive for stepping forward?  In fact, who would hire them?  Even if you could point to Juan Arias as a shining example.  It's disheartening when an industry becomes so fearful of change that we cannot even celebrate the few fringe members that are true artists.

This man deserves recognition, however belatedly.  And Canonero needs to be more of a household name.  Maybe I'll have to be the one to write the book.