Monday, August 27, 2007

Beating a dead horse

The story didn't garner the attention of the Michael Vick debacle, but...

Russell Baze, the winningest jockey in the history of thoroughbred racing, has been suspended for 15 days and fined $2,500 for using his whip inappropriately during a race.

In the first race on last Thursday's card at Bay Meadows, Baze was cruising to a commanding victory aboard heavily favored Imperial Eyes when the horse misstepped and, obviously injured, faltered on the home stretch. Baze tapped his mount with his crop once. When the horse continued to slow its pace, Baze switched hands and applied the whip again. Imperial Eyes, moving at barely a trot by this point, limped to a second-place finish.

Although Imperial Eyes was able to walk into the equine ambulance under his own power, track veterinarians determined that the horse had broken the cannon bone in its left foreleg. The four-year-old gelding was subsequently euthanized as a result of the injury.

Following an inquiry, the Bay Meadows stewards cleared Baze of a potential animal cruelty charge, but sat him down for a whip violation. Baze will begin serving his suspension the Sunday before Labor Day.

In a press statement, Baze seemed sincerely remorseful:
I'm not going to try to make any excuse for what I did, because there is no excuse for it. In the heat of the moment, right at the finish line, I made a bad decision. I felt he (Imperial Eyes) was off, but I never felt in great danger of going down or that he could be a hurt horse. I made a bad decision, it's my responsibility and I'll take the punishment for it.
KM, my resident horsewoman, and I watched the replay of the race on Thursday and again yesterday, and it was clear to us what happened. Baze, well into the lead and mere yards from the finish line, felt his mount fail. With so short a distance, however, the veteran jockey believed he could keep Imperial Eyes moving forward just long enough to finish first. Russell wasn't being intentionally mean to the animal — he just wanted to win, no matter what. Baze's competitive instincts — the instincts that propelled him to a record-shattering 9,826 trips to the winner's circle — overcame his better judgment. In the heat of the fight, he made a stupid mistake.

I doubt he'll make the same error again.

By all accounts, Baze would be one of the last people to mistreat the creatures upon which his livelihood depends. I've seen enough of Russell's behavior around horses at the Sonoma County track to believe that's true. This incident, however, goes to show what can happen to any competitive individual in a weak moment when the desire to win at all costs trumps sound judgment, even in the best-intentioned of us.

I'm thinking that more than a few other professional athletes — baseball players and football players, boxers and bicyclists, track stars and weightlifters — could learn a valuable lesson from this.

I'll refrain from mentioning any names.

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