Jewish World Review June 3, 2004 / 14 Sivan, 5764

Gene Lyons

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A race for your attention | According to Laura Hillenbrand's terrific book, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" (Ballantine, 2002), the nation became transfixed upon a racehorse during the late 1930s partly due to hard times.

The long shadow of the Depression and war clouds gathering over Europe and the Pacific, Hillenbrand thinks, made people hungry for a diversion — particularly one they could place a legal bet on.

Seabiscuit's cleverly crafted image as a classic American overachiever (he was, in fact, a descendant of legendary horse Man O'War) also helped. His 1938 match race against War Admiral got more ink in American newspapers that year than Hitler and Mussolini.

Nothing like that appears likely to happen to this year's Triple Crown contender, Smarty Jones, although heaven knows we could all use a diversion. Things are lousy on the political front, and polls show Americans feeling apprehensive and uneasy.

But there's far too much competition for attention in today's diffuse and omnipresent news media, and these days you can place a bet on almost anything. Even so, millions of Americans who don't have a dime on the race will cheer themselves hoarse watching Smarty Jones make his stretch run at the Belmont on June 5 and, win or lose, an awful lot of them will have tears in their eyes.

I'm sure I will. I'm not a big racing fan in that I rarely go to the track, but Smarty Jones' perfectly timed, heedless charge around the final turn and into the lead at the Preakness got me up and yelling so loudly that Buffy, the office spaniel, got all charged up and ran around barking. Even Beverly, the basset hound, was roused from her afternoon power nap.

Mine was not unusual behavior. During ESPN's program about the great Secretariat, the only non-human in its "100 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century" series, the horse's biographer, William Nack, described thousands weeping openly while watching his astonishing 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes.

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Exactly why people react so emotionally to racehorses is hard to say. From an animal lover's perspective, there's plenty to criticize about the thoroughbred industry. But even if you've never ridden or touched a horse, there's just something about them that captures the human imagination. Prehistoric cave paintings in France demonstrate an early fascination with their power and beauty. Whatever Stone Age genius first accomplished it, domesticating horses was one of the great moments in human history, as crucial in its way as the discovery of fire. Horses provided food, fertilizer, the ability to travel enormously farther and faster, to transport goods and to wage war.

In some ways, taming horses only made them more mysterious. Surely they must be gifts from the gods. Thoroughbreds, for example, stand roughly 7 feet tall, weigh upwards of 1,200 pounds, can accelerate to between 35 and 40 mph, hurdle fences we'd have trouble climbing, yet many are gentle enough to be controlled by children. Even so, they retain an aloofness, an essential horseness, for want of a better word, that gives them a dignity not shared by most domestic animals, along with an oddly endearing blend of timidity and courage.

Horses are herd animals who love other horses. Period. In their wordless way, a bit like the 18th century equine philosophers in Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," they appear to regard themselves as the apex of creation — even Lucky, the sillier of my two geldings, who has been known to spook at the sight of a particular species of yellow butterfly.

"You can love him all you want," the woman who taught me to ride said early on, "but he's not going to love you back."

I came to horses relatively late in life. Riding turns out to be the perfect thing for an animal lover and second-rate ex-jock, a virile, manly pastime I share with a million 12-year-old girls.

But don't get me wrong. I'd no more think of climbing on a young stallion like Smarty Jones than I'd take up professional motorcycle racing. And one of Smarty's great gifts along with superb athleticism — horses vary as much as humans — appears to be his calm, intelligent disposition. He wastes no energy during the post parade posturing and daring other stallions to fight.

Nobody has to abuse racehorses to make them want to win. Three-year-old thoroughbred stallions are more naturally competitive than human beings can easily imagine. You think Michael Jordan's a gamer? Smarty Jones makes him look phlegmatic, and so does every other horse entered in the Belmont.

It's partly about survival, partly about breeding. See, it's no use trying to persuade horses that no predator exists in North America that can catch or kill them. Even on a racetrack, they're literally running for their lives, yet with a joyous, headlong wholeheartedness that makes us weep.

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