No doubt – horse racing is a colorful sport.
Except there’s one color no one likes to see at the track. Even if you’re a Kentuckian who “bleeds blue” or your favorite horse is ridden under blue silks, the blue item we don’t like to see causes crowds to gasp and fans to worry.
That blue screen used to give privacy to a troubled horse freaks out everyone, but it doesn’t have to.
The thing is, many people see that blue screen and believe that the horse behind it is doomed.
And that’s unfortunate because it’s often not the case. And I believe that misconception costs racing some potential fans.
So, I have ideas on how this misconception can be countered.
One Fine Fall Day at Keeneland
On my most recent trip to Kentucky, I enjoyed a day at Keeneland on Sunday, October 18, 2009.
During that day, the blue screen and ambulances came out twice. Once, Miguel Mena was unseated when She’s Due stumbled at the start of the race. The article doesn’t mention that she ran away willy-nilly, but that happened, too. The crowd gasped and murmurs of concern spread for both horse and jockey.
Both ambulances, human and equine, came out to the track for both horse and rider. The blue screen went up to block the spectators’ view of the horse. That’s when a rumble of unease rippled through the crowd.
To put it bluntly, if a horse needs to be destroyed right then and there, a death sentence can executed behind that blue screen.
Fortunately, the jockey was announced to be okay on the spot. No word, however, came about the horse hidden behind the blue screen.
She’s Due was transported by equine ambulance, also not known to be an encouraging sign since much of America watched Barbaro go for an ill-fated ride during his Preakness bid.
Near my seat in the grandstand, I advised worried spectators near me to check the websites of the racing press, such as Blood Horse or the Thoroughbred Times online for the horse’s condition, which was not announced to the crowd.
And racing continued as usual.
Later, toward the end of another race that day, the ambulance and blue screen came out again. Jockey Willie Martinez pulled up Wee Bit Fancy toward the end of their race.
I had been standing down on apron next to a woman and her daughter who looked to be about 10 years old.
When the blue screen came out for the horse, the woman turned her daughter away. The little girl protested, but the mother had spun her by the shoulder, to turn her away from the activity bustling just a few yards ahead of us.
I told the mother as quickly as I could that the blue screen was probably a precaution to allow privacy and some semblance of quiet while the horse received a quick examination.
Still, the mother assumed the worst, that the horse was being destroyed not 20 feet away from her and her young daughter. The angry mom whisked her then-worried little girl toward an exit through the grandstand.
Had the announcer mentioned what I had, that the screen didn’t automatically mean that the worst had happened, maybe that family wouldn’t have left the track in a disgusted huff?
The horse in question, Wee Bit Fancy turned out to be okay, too.
But somewhere, I’m willing to bet, there’s a mother who will never take her daughter to the track again because two horses got hurt enough that the Blue Screen of Death came out.
See what I mean?
What track announcers can do to help
Tell spectators the blue “privacy screen” helps calm the horse while it’s being checked out.
Tell spectators that the horse’s condition is being assessed and that a diagnosis may take a while to determine, but that the findings will be reported later.
That a trip in the equine ambulance can mean a trip to the clinic for diagnostics and treatment.
And please tell the spectators that they can find out how the horse is later online. If your track doesn’t have that feature, please look into having that set up.
Keeneland has daily reports on its website, which is where I finally found out what happened to She’s Due and Wee Bit Fancy.
I think tracks and announcers can do a better job at educating the public about the ambulance and the blue screen, that their usage does not imply a death sentence for the horse.
But what if the horse has to be put down?
If fairness, I’ve never been to a live race meet where I’ve witnessed an on-the-track euthanasia.
I think crowds take their cues from the announcers, who have the power to educate as well as inform.
I’m not advocating minimizing or sugar-coating. What I am recommending is that, fatal breakdowns can and do happen, so announcers should make plans for what they can say to the crowds.
Racetrack announcers inform and entertain, but I think they should also educate and, if necessary, provide comfort to a crowd that doesn’t just have money riding on the horses in the race, but also hearts, hopes and dreams.