Into The Great Beyond

Better Talk Now, a racehorse and a force of nature, has died.  Those of us who work with animals each and every day know that death is very much a part of the experience, but I’ve got to admit that this one has hit me harder than any to date. And it’s certainly not because he was one of my favorite patients.

“Blackie”, as he was known, was not a horse to be trusted, but his affection could be momentarily garnered with a peppermint bribe. The photo you see was taken my first year out of veterinary school. Blackie was the first superstar I was permitted to treat as a veterinarian, and I was kind of in awe of him. And approximately 0.2 milliseconds after Sharon Castro shot this photo, Blackie bit me so hard I think he was attempting the first ever equine-performed mastectomy. It was a lesson he taught everyone who was permitted to interact with him: it’s all about respect. Blackie was nobody’s pet.

He was a little bit notorious for doing things on his own terms, always. He raced on the turf, which meant that before every race he would have to walk from the dirt track onto the turf course, and he would take his sweet time doing it.  Blackie was one hell of a racehorse; he raced and hit the board at the absolute highest levels of the game until he was ten years old –  a feat that only a very small handful of racehorses in history have accomplished. As a result, many of his races were widely televised and watched by scores of fans, and he would make everyone wait and wait and wait while he appeared to be deciding whether or not he wanted to play that day. He would stand there, jockey in the saddle, and looking over the turf course for what seemed like an eternity before stepping onto it. And everyone knew there was no rushing Blackie. Excessive urging only caused him to dig his heels in a little bit harder.  In his own good time, he would step onto the grass and make his way to the starting gate.

Once he decided he would race that day after all, we were in for a treat. Blackie was the most exciting horse to watch. He would break from the gate near the back of the field, and just when you thought he had no chance whatsoever, he’d explode down the stretch, sometimes through some gap so small you didn’t think it was really there, and win. One of his finest victories, in my opinion, was the 2007 Manhattan Stakes. Now I don’t have sort of photographic memory possessed by many racetrackers who can recall the entire field of a race that was run 30 years ago, and the name of each jockey in that race as well as three generations of parental lineage of the winner. But I remember this race so well: I was working late that day and it was a busy Saturday so I missed watching the race live. I checked the results chart on my phone as soon as it was posted and saw that he won! It was a big deal because Blackie was eight years old at the time (practically geriatric in racehorse years) and the race was a Grade 1, which is the very highest level in racing. When I got home, I pulled up the race replay and as the horses were coming down the stretch I waited to see Blackie’s signature come-from-behind burst of speed, but it didn’t come when I though it would. Watching the race, I thought “How is it possible that the result chart is wrong? There’s no way he won!” But of course he did win – his slim black body shot through a gap along the rail with little time to spare, and the old man crossed the finish line first.

Oh, I should probably mention too that he also won the 2004 Breeder’s Cup Turf race, which is pretty much the Super Bowl of horse racing. He was a badass, there’s no doubt about it. If you watch his Breeder’s Cup win, you’ll see some people in the winner’s circle who remained devoted to this horse for the rest of his life.  His owners – Bushwood Stables – and trainer Graham Motion and his wife Anita did what few people do for racehorses in their retirement: they kept him. It would have been quite a challenge to find a suitable home for such a quirky and sometimes grumpy horse, so rather than risk any misfortune they retired him to the pastoral fields of Fair Hill Training Center where he had spent so many  years as a racehorse. They allowed him to live out his days in the company of his best equine friend while watching the new generations of budding racing stars attempt to follow in his footsteps. More than that, they saved his life when it is suspected he contracted botulism – a disease that is highly fatal in adult horses – and required a lengthy hospital stay. There is no doubt about it, Blackie was a tough horse.

So tough in fact, that when I learned that he had to undergo emergency colic surgery to save his life, the very first thought I had was, “If any horse can make it, Blackie can.” We had seen him beat the odds so many times, both on and off the racetrack. Through the magic of FaceBook I watch the stream of photos posted by people who had gone to the hospital to visit their old friend as he fought one complication after another. But even a tough old superstar of a racehorse had his limits, and he eventually let his humans know that he was done fighting.

So many of us have such a difficult time losing our four-legged companions. For me, typically the hardest part is wondering whether the animal can feel the love we have for him and the gratitude we feel for all of the lessons he taught us. This time around though, I have no doubt that Blackie felt that. You can read this beautiful tribute, written by a woman who knew him as well as anyone, and see how much love surrounded him in his final days. This time around, I’m sad because we have lost a presence that commanded attention and respect, the kind of a soul we see far too little in any form. And I’m so very sad for his humans, the people who cared for him every day and fought so incredibly hard to save this unbelievably special horse.

So here’s to Blackie – thanks for the thrills, thanks for the lessons, and most importantly thanks for showing us the power of living life on one’s own terms.

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