Gone Like the Wind

by longformphilly

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Buzz Bissinger | Vanity Fair | August 2007

It was a cardinal rule of horse racing for any owner, and Gretchen Jackson, straightforward and no-nonsense, with a voice of silky gravel, knew it as well as anyone:

Never fall in love with a horse. 

She and her husband, Roy, had been in the business since the late 1970s, so they had had ample time to learn the cardinal rule. It was a business, and they treated it as one. The horses they owned weren’t pets. They were Thoroughbreds, as beautiful as they were fragile, and engineered for speed, the musculature of their bodies propelled by legs as thin as spindles.

They were susceptible to coughs and allergies and heaves and a highly contagious condition called strangles, in which pus discharges from the nostrils, and abscesses form in the lymph nodes under the jaw and sometimes burst. They were susceptible to viruses such as West Nile and equine herpes, to diseases spread by the larvae of flies that hide out in manure. They were susceptible to leg fractures that require them to be euthanized on the spot, and to the puzzling mystery of laminitis, a disease in which the hoof wall separates from the inner foot, causing such intolerable pain that it too could result in euthanasia.

Never fall in love with a horse.

They were taught to race when they were two, and they didn’t all take to it. Some were just stubborn. Some, like juvenile delinquents, went out of their way to do the exact opposite of what you told them to do. Some were scared. Some were just bored. Some were just mean. Some were dumb as rocks. In 2005, 72,487 horses pulled out of the starting gate in races across North America. Their average earnings were $15,851. It wasn’t enough to pay for the cost of maintaining them, and of those who ran, 26 percent earned less than $1,000.

Never fall in love with a horse.

But the problem for Gretchen Jackson was she did fall in love with a horse. She fell in love with him because when he was in his element on the racecourse there were moments he ran with such joy and abandon that he actually flew, all four feet off the ground. She fell in love with him because of the way he soldiered on after he was tragically hurt in the Preakness Stakes in May 2006, his sense of self so intact that he bit one veterinarian smack on the butt and ran a masseuse out of the stall. She fell in love with him because of the gleam in his eyes, still bright, during those dark days in July 2006 when both his rear lower limbs became a medical nightmare, and she wrote in the private journal she kept:

It’s not good. Oh my God I am so concerned. Dear Lord we cannot let the bright light fade, flicker, die. We must conquer. Where are you God in my suffering? Are you holding my hands showing me full moons and breezy nights? Yes Lord, they are magnificent but my heart is looking at Barbaro. That is not the horse that won the derby.

She fell in love with him because of the way he was trying to communicate, Don’t give up on me yet. She fell in love with him because of the way he rallied after that. And then she fell in love with him because of the way he died.

Writer bio: Buzz Bissinger, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, is a contributor for Vanity Fair. He wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he and two colleagues won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, before leaving for Odessa, Texas, where he wrote the American classic, “Friday Night Lights.”

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