Hoke, like most off-the-track thoroughbreds, had to be treated for ulcers that he incurred from the stress of racing.
People don't connect with horses. That is the reason some people say horse racing is failing. Horse racing needs a hero to revive the sport, they say. And that is why all eyes on Saturday will be on California Chrome, the favorite going into the Belmont Stakes, the last and most grueling leg of the Triple Crown.
"Horse racing thrived when a lot of people still had a connection with horses, and when it was not legally possible to bet on much of anything but horses. But, of course, in America today, gambling is wide open. And horses are so much out of our daily lives that we rarely even have Western movies anymore; films based on true stories rarely involve horses. ...
Americans would rather play slot machines and point spreads and watch automobiles race, because they grew up with cars and can relate to them."
Is that really the reason the sport is failing? Because we don't connect with horses? I don't think so. I think we connect with horses just fine. I think we don't connect with horse racing.
The industry has become so rife with cruelty, drugs, slaughter and abuse that after I adopted an off-the-track thoroughbred, the sport I used to enjoy became one I can no longer stomach.
I rescued my horse from slaughter. "Urban Jungle," or "Hoke," as I call him now (Navajo for "abandoned" because that is what he was), could no longer cut it on the track, could no longer bring in the cash. When that happens, most thoroughbreds, which are overbred because of the global meat and racing industries, end up in kill pens.
They are piled into tractor-trailers under the most overcrowded and inhumane conditions, and carted off to Canada or Mexico, where slaughter is legal. Some don't even survive the trip, in fact, 30 horses died recently in a truck fire while en route to Quebec for slaughter.
Their meat is shipped off for dinner plates worldwide. Sometimes that meat has been pumped full of drugs that are perfectly legal for use in racing. Those drugs mask pain so horses can ignore their injuries and run faster.
I'm still working with Hoke. He'd never seen a path through the woods. Never crossed a river. Never been ridden by a child. He's afraid of everything, and at the same time, he's like a child opening presents on Christmas morning. We are building a bond, slowly but surely. He's come so far in the past year — from a terrified, bucking spitfire to a horse that loves discovery, hanging out with his herd and rolling in the mud. He spooks, and slowly learns to get over it. I constantly show him new things. He constantly shows me new things, too. I am teaching him not to be afraid. He is also teaching me not to be afraid. And he is also teaching me ... patience. Quiet calm. Inner strength. Silent communication. And how to roll after a fall.
When I watch Hoke run through a field, it's awe-inspiring. He's an athlete ... maybe not fit for the track, but certainly fit for the life of a horse, which is all I ask him to be. His body moves like a well-oiled machine, with power, beauty and grace. The best part: He runs because he wants to.
That is what I liked best about horse racing. It showed off the magnificence of the animal. But at what cost? For me, one that has become too high to pay.
From where I stand, I see people connecting with horses everywhere. There are rescuers, trainers, riders, veterinarians, dentists, children and seniors. Vets with PTSD are learning to bond with nonthreatening live beings. An 83-year-old near-blind woman has taken up riding. A woman in hospice asked that her miniature horse peer through the window just before she died.
People who connect with horses just aren't at the race track, because racing is a business, and true connections aren't about business. They are about love.
Laurel Dalrymple is an editor and writer for NPR.org. You can follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/laurelmdalrymple