Timeless tales of the turf

When I reviewed sports pages from the 1920s, I was struck by how much we have in common with railbirds of a bygone era.

Two of my favorite things are horses and reading, which is why I feel so fortunate to have contributed to EQUUS for the past 15 years. Most days you can find me either at the library or the barn. 

For the past four years, however, my reading/riding balance has been a little out of whack as I researched a book about the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner Exterminator. Yet in exchange for lost time in the saddle, I had the privilege of immersing myself in an era when horses featured much more in everyday life than they do today. In the first decades of the 20th century, horse racing ranked with boxing and baseball among the most popular American sports, and every major newspaper employed at least one turf writer, a journalist who reported solely on racing.

Those turf writers didn’t just report on issues of interest to bettors; they also chronicled the foibles of characters populating the backstretch, the subtleties of equine conditioning and the personalities of the horses themselves. Many had once worked as trainers or riders, and that experience came through in their writing.

In reading their columns today, I am struck by how much information about horse health they managed to convey amid discussions of betting odds, handicap weights and track conditions. References to “short and choppy” strides, shelly feet and other physical issues abound. In fact, one reporter observed, “Most of the sons and daughters of Astronomer have shelly feet, which probably is the reason such of them as race at all show their best form on slow and heavy tracks.” A genetic cause of shelly feet! A ripe topic for an EQUUS article.

Occasionally, the veterinary care racehorses received was discussed. One writer explained that a horse named Johren had bowed a tendon and “was turned out immediately for a rest cure at Brookdale farm, a rest cure being about the only sure corrective for a bowed tendon, votaries of the firing iron notwithstanding.” The best treatment for a bowed tendon is still the subject of some disagreement today, but the firing iron—a device used to cauterize equine legs in an attempt to boost healing—has fallen out of favor. (After their legs were pinfired, horses were rested. It seems the time off was actually what helped the bowed tendons.)

Those turf writers also recognized the intangible elements that sort winners from losers. “This horse was meant to be a topliner,” wrote one. “But he is cursed with moods and will not do his best at all times. I’ve watched this fellow time and time again pull up after a race and I’ve never seen him distressed—or even tired.”

Reading those old racing columns, I felt a kinship with the writers despite the years that separate us. After all, like me, they spent their days celebrating the athleticism and idiosyncrasies of horses. A few even pondered big issues: “Horses are hard to figure out when those who breed them don’t know which is the chaff and which is the wheat,” wrote a reporter in 1924.

Horses are indeed hard to figure out. But it’s fascinating to try. And the time I spent reading the work of these turf writers makes me appreciate the essential element that has always connected horsepeople. We can debate endlessly over which barn management system is best, and what causes shelly feet, but what unites us is the quest to learn all that we can about the horses we love.

Eliza McGraw’s book, “Here Comes Exterminator!” was published in April.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #466, July 2016.




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