When Royal Kaliber died earlier this month, no one hesitated to honor his accomplishments and courage, and he certainly deserved all the testimonials his
memory has received. Mostly overlooked, though, has been that Royal Kaliber died following an injury he suffered in competition–colic that followed his breaking down under the bright lights of the Athens Olympics, in front of thousands in the stands and on TV.
I’m pointing this out because very rarely do other horses who die following a competition accident receive the tribute that Royal Kaliber has. It’s mostly a result of a cultural and organizational squeamishness about the subject and a fear of reprisals from animal-rights groups, who’ll accuse our sports of causing a horse’s death. Well, we believe that that squeamishness, that fear, deprives many brave, generous horses their due.
On the weekend of Oct. 15-17, two horses suffered catastrophically fatal injuries in plain sight during competitions that my staff members and I were covering–Kaiti Saunders’ Presto at the Fair Hill CCI*** (p. 12) and Fergus M. Galvin’s Ambenay at the International Gold Cup (p. 46). Neither horse was famous; Presto wasn’t pressing the winners at Fair Hill, and it was too early in the maiden claiming hurdle to tell if Ambenay had a shot. Competition halted for 45 minutes while officials extricated Presto from the fence where he’d fallen, and the Gold Cup’s next race was delayed while officials caught and removed the panicked Ambenay, who continued galloping around the course after losing his jockey and clearly fracturing his right front leg. And never that day, nor the next day at Fair Hill, were they mentioned publicly again.
The public handling of accidents that cause a human or equine death is tricky, for sure. Is it better to pretend that nothing has happened–kind of like the Wizard of Oz (“Ignore the man behind the curtain”)–or to be honest and admit that a participant has lost his life? Does seeming to ignore a death make it look even worse, as if we’re trying to hide something? Why can’t we have a brief memorial service, a moment of silence, the next day for a horse, just as they did at the Burghley CCI**** (England) in September, when Caroline Pratt died?
The real problem with not acknowledging a horse’s accidental death is that it makes owners, riders and even the competition management seem as if they don’t care, as if it’s some kind of “acceptable loss.” And that’s absolutely not the case. Whenever anyone loses a horse, their comrades or friends are the first to help, anything from a heartfelt hug, to making post-mortem arrangements, to packing up your belongings.
But the “outside world” never sees the sorrow and caring, because we’re too afraid to show it.
We here at the Chronicle don’t like writing about a horse’s death, for sure. But we–as a magazine and as a sport–simply have to be able to admit that fatal accidents sometimes just happen. And we should be able to mourn and remember the horse or comrade we’ve lost. That’s why we asked Kaiti Saunders if she’d like to write a memorial about Presto, to whom she’d devoted much of her life (p. 14). We’re very glad she accepted our invitation because she perfectly expressed the emotions anyone who’s lost a horse–in or out of competition–feels. We would like to believe that Presto has received the kind of tribute that he and other wonderful horses like him deserve.