Sunday, May 31, 2009

Graceland Stabes Open to Public

Could this be the Madeline Pickens effect or was Priscilla Presley always a horse lover? Apparently Elvis was and Priscilla's recent effort to turn the barns into stables for rescue horses is a wonderful gesture.

Last Wednesday, the stables at Graceland were opened to public tours for the first time. In residence were two rescue horses, Max and Bandit, whom Presley rescued last January in honor of Elvis' birthday.

There are also two other residents: Sun's Reflection, age 27 and Candy, age 17, who are distant cousins of horses from the Elvis-era. It is well known that the late singer loved all twenty of the horses he bought during his lifetime.

"We'd sometimes go out to the stables at 2 in the morning," Presley reminisced. "There was something very therapeutic that he got from it, and I did too. It's like you don't really feel like you're in the city."

In fact, even though some of Elvis' friends did not like horses, according to Presley once Elvis bought the Circle G Ranch in Mississippi, he "got them all horses whether they liked them or not."

Priscilla also let it be known that she is in staunch opposition to a bill currently in the Tennessee legislature that would enable a horse slaughter facility in the state if the federal ban is lifted on slaughter. The bill is currently tied up in committee and will not be acted upon before next year.

In the meantime, there is speculation that the current rescue horses might be joined by others since there are four empty stalls.

We think Elvis would approve.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Ruffian Equine Medical Center Opens

The new equine medical center that opened earlier this week opposite the Belmont backstretch is named after an equine hero, Ruffian, who did not fit the criteria of my thesis because she, sadly, did not survive her injuries. It is fitting, however, that a state of the art facility, so sorely needed on Long Island, is named after the great and glorious filly who lived to run. Equally fitting is the fact that one of its chief veterinarians is female: Dr. Patricia Hogan, famous for saving Smarty Jones' eye.

The new center, of which IEAH (of Big Brown fame) is the landlord and major contributor, is not intended to be an ambulatory clinic--rather a referral center where outside veterinarians could travel to perform procedures for the horse. The Center will also provide certain emergency orthopedic surgeries but is not intended as a primary care center.

The new facility takes up over 22,000 square feet of space and includes two surgery suites, three recovery stalls, a high speed treadmill and state of the art diagnostic equipment. There is also an outdoor lunging ring, a full service laboratory and 26 stalls in an outside barn with three indoor climate controlled ones.

It is, according to Hogan, all about the horse. "The equine center is a great showplace for the veterinary community," she said. "It is my hope that the facility will be able to provide the best care possible for these horses. This will include an 'open door' policy that will welcome outside surgeons and/or specialists if their assistance is requested or required on a specific case."

The general idea is to minimize trauma to an injured horse by eliminating the need to travel long distances to a well-equipped facility. Let's hope the veterinary community does not have to use this center for too many emergencies but let's also hope that when they do, they find everything they need already in place.

As for IEAH, rest assured, they see this as a valuable investment not only in the industry but also in their own assets.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Heart of the Story

I ran across the following blog the other day, written by Margaret Falk, about the importance of the "meat" of the story--or its angle. Interestingly enough, she gave her example in the form of a hypothetical take on the Barbaro story.

According to Falk, if she were tapped to write the Barbaro story, she might focus on the Barbaro-Bernardini rivalry that never got a chance to play itself out. When all eyes were on Barbaro's breakdown in the Preakness, Bernardini ran away with the race, a feat that actually was eclipsed by Barbaro's accident.

In tracing the parallels between the two horses, Falk might create a sense of ironic tension that may or may not have actually existed, which is of course, a writer's perrogative. It is certainly an interesting perspective, and one that I never, ever considered, having been tapped to write the story.

Telling a story as well known as Barbaro's is a challenge because everyone knows how it ends. Which is why it is sometimes better to let the story go away for a while and then bring it back. Falk's take is to work with what actually existed--just use all the pieces.

We will never know if Barbaro would have beaten Bernardini in the Preakness, but it does make for interesting speculation. I personally think there is enough tension in the Barbaro story without adding hypothetical angst, but the addition of Bernardini as a character in the Barbaro story is certainly a valid suggestion.

Right now, I'm thinking that an even more interesting take might be to pick up where Barbaro left off and explore his legacy. So much good has come from such a horrific accident, that one is left to wonder at the "randomness" of it all. But that too, is equally speculative...

Stay tuned. I have a feeling that this story may come full circle in another year or so when Lentenor comes of age. And what a story that would be.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Kindle Review Part II

So here is why I think the future of publishing may lie with electronic readers like the Kindle--the ability to sell on the screen on which you read. That's right, when you turn the Kindle on, you can either go directly to where you left off reading--which is what I usually do--or go the the Home screen on which you have stored your purchases. There is also the option to go to the Kindle store, which is where it all gets interesting.

First of all, there is something called the Kindle Daily Post, which is a short blurb about some book you can, naturally, purchase on the Kindle. It changes every day and is very often written by the author whose book is being plugged. Talk about built in marketing. Right now, for example, there is a interview with Elizabeth Edwards about her new book.

Then, there is the New on Kindle post, which basically tells you what is hot. And of course, there are the personal picks, based on your prior purchases. This is amazing marketing all on one screen in one place. The blurbs about the books are all well written and short.

There are also the obligatory lists--Best Sellers, Top Kindle Sellers and New and Noteworthy, for example, for those who like their book info very short and sweet. The important thing here is that the Kindle affords authors the opportunity to literally connect with their readers--to comment on their books or even answer questions from readers. It is a goldmine of untapped potential and that is what struck me the first time that I turned this machine on and the Kindle Store came up.

I do not understand why some authors do not make their books available electronically. In my opinion, they are missing a very large boatload of opportunity to get their work out as well as to comment on that work.

It is, in a word, brilliant, and Amazon should work at lowering the price to make this device accessible to everyone, especially older people who can't always get out to the bookstore or library. I don't know what took me so long....

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kindle Review Part I

First a confession: my sister surprised me with the new Kindle! I have had it for a while but have actually just started to read my first book on it, since I now have the luxury of being able to read non-thesis related books.

My first impressions are that I love it. Not everything--I would have liked a touch screen, for example, because once you are an i-phone devotee, you love touch screens, but other than that, the interface is fairly user friendly. It did take me while to figure out how to get all my purchases to show up on the home page, but the HELP screen and service is very good.

Here's what I especially love: the fact that I can change the size of the type!! A wonderful treat for aging eyes. Here's what I don't love: the screen adjustments when you move from one page to the next and the fact that the photos are really not that good when viewed on the Kindle.

Which is why, newspaper friendly as it is, I wouldn't want to read a newspaper on it. The photos are just not that great. The display is not that clear and it is only black and white.

So when I read that the future of newspapers is via electronic readers, I take exception. Yes, I can truly see the value of being able to read a newspaper on a train for example without getting your hands dirty or turning/folding large paper pages. But I don't think I would want to do it everyday.

I have downloaded a few blogs but I must confess they are easier for me to read on my computer, but then again, that is a matter of habit. I'm not sure I would even like magazines on it because of the lack of color but you can get some subscriptions.

I don't think it is going to save the print industry as touted. But it is a great toy.

More tomorrow as I continue to discover my likes and dislikes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Horse Slaughter Across the Border

Kudos to Alex Brown for making the leap from the New York Times blog, The Rail, to the sports pages of the daily! His article on horse auctions, was picked up on May 22 and ran in the sports section of the paper.

It is great visibility for Alex, of course, but it is also great publicity for the cause near and dear to his heart: horse slaughter. In the piece, Brown documents his weekly visits to a livestock auction about an hour west of Woodbine race course in Ontario, where he is currently based.

As he learned, kill buyers seek healthy-looking horses for their operations, paying anywhere from 15 to 49 cents a pound for their meat. How incredibly gruesome to pay a premium for healthy horses destined for someone's dinner table in Europe or elsewhere. It is gut-wrenching to calculate the value of a healthy thoroughbred based on the weight of his carcass.

What makes this practice even more insidious is by bidding on premium horses, the kill buyers end up competing with those who are legitimately shopping for a riding or farm horse, often driving them out of the market.

Alex's article is just the transparency this dirty little secret needs. While slaughter is banned in the U. S., American horse lovers need to be reminded that the practice still exists just across the border, which is where many of the "retired" American racehorses end up.

Keep it up Alex! The horses thank you....

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Brothers of Barbaro

During my thesis presentation last week, complete with a slide of the Barbaro statue dedication last month, I commented that the story had literal and figurative legs. It seems as if the beat goes on and on.

Also last week, the New York Times carried an article by Bill Finely about Nicanor's stunning victory, reminiscent of you-know-who's equally thrilling maiden special weight debut four years ago. Both races were on the turf at Delaware Park. Even Michael Matz had to admit, "Those races, they looked awfully similar. It was pretty amazing."

The difference, of course, is that Barbaro won his the first time out, while this was Nicanor's fourth try. It is possible, as many speculate, that the turf makes all the difference for these sons of Dynaformer.

Matz feels that both Nicanor and his late brother handled both surfaces pretty well, but not one to tamper with success, he will run Nicanor back on the turf. It is possible he will run next in an allowance race at Delaware, and then perhaps in the Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs. "I always thought he was a good horse," says Matz. "The distance won't be a problem for him. He really took to the turf but so did Barbaro. Barbaro had such a big heart. That's still what we have to find out with Nicanor. It looks like the ability is there."

Rumor has it that Lentenor, who has recently moved to Matz's Fair Hill training operation from Florida, is even more reminiscent of his late brother. He is expected to make his first start as a two year old--perhaps in the Fall--and don't be surprised if you see him follow a path very similar to Barbaro's.

After all, if it worked once...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Equine Stem Cell Advances

Exciting news from the recently opened Regenerative Medicine Laboratory at UC- Davis. Doctors there have been able to help horses heal life-threatening injuries with stem cell technology.

"For some time we've been trying to figure out a way to do something other than make a better scar," said Dr. Sean Owens, the director of the facility. They are using stem cells, harvested from the bone marrow, umbilical cord blood or placental tissue, to mend bones and soft tissues in horse with astounding results. "This is not drug-based therapy," adds Dr. Gregory Ferraro, the university's director for equine health. "We're talking about biological medicine. So we are recreating natural tissue with cells. It has the real promise of cure."

So real in fact that Ferraro believes, the technology, which did not exist at the time of his injury, could have been used to improve Barbaro's chances of recovery. "The team at the University of Pennsylvania did a wonderful job with Barbaro," he comments. "The problem was that the recovery was so long, it gave laminitis a chance to set in to the opposite foot. A much shorter recovery time would have lessened the chance of laminitis and made his survival chances much better."

To date, nine of Dick Randall's reining horses have been treated with stem cells for injuries and all returned to training, usually in 90 days. He is one of the funders of the new lab. A collection kit has been developed so that vets and farm managers can provide bone marrow samples directly to UC-Davis where researchers can produce stem cell therapy doses in about two weeks.

"The application of stem cell science to treating horses is advancing so quickly that within three to fie years, the treatments that are currently being provided for orthopedic repair in athletic horses will seem crude in hindsight," notes Ferraro.

Just think what the future holds for humans!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Hero Worship

So it has been a little crazy here lately with graduations--my daughter's and MINE!!--and my thesis presentation, which was a lot of work but well worth it. News also that the NES Equine Journal in Cardiff, Wales is interested in publishing parts of my thesis and it has been submitted to a conference in Hawaii next no complaints. Just busy.

It was fascinating, however, to discover this article online about, you guessed it, horses as heroes. It mentions Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Barbaro and Ruffian and adds Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird to the mix. I'm not sure I agree with the last two--I think it is just too early to determine if they are heroes in terms of inspiring others to emulate their feats (the most important criteria I used to determine my list of equine heroes), but I think it is fascinating that the term is even being considered to describe these race horses.

"It seems that at various times in our history when times are hard economically and physically and people are looking for a feel-good story, it pops up in sports," writes David McCollum. "The psychological boost can come from both man and beast."

I think in terms of Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird, what we have is the classic case of the underdog making it big. This was part of Seabiscuit's appeal but Mine That Bird is going to have to race until he is seven, as Seabiscuit did, before he truly earns the title of hero. Rachel is going to have to enter at least one more high profile race and beat the boys at their own game before she earns it. As I say in my thesis, Americans love an underdog, even if he is a horse."

Kris Allen beat the favorite on American Idol and Shawn Johnson ran away with the Dancing with the Stars title. Here's the moral of the story: anyone can win so it is worth entering and trying hard, but I still think it takes more than winning to be a hero.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Anti-Slaughter Winning Video

This video is the winner of the Alex Brown anti-slaughter video contest. It was entered on behalf of Canter New England for their undying efforts to never let a horse fall through the cracks.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Follow That Dog!

An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer posits the theory that one sign of gentrification is the presence of dogs in a neighborhood. And not just dogs, but all the accessories that come with them.

Pointing to the Philly neighborhood of Northern Liberties as an example, the article states that twenty years ago "dogs were as rare as a parked BMW. But as Northern Liberties went from edgy to trendy, the canine pack grew."

Part of the reason is delayed parenting practiced by the young professionals who have moved into the neighborhood. It seems that developers have followed their trail for years. "As a developer, you'd be a fool not to recognize what dogs can mean," said developer Charles Abdo. "That's where the money is."

Clearly those who are in the pet industry have also picked up the scent. Doggie boutiques are popping up on every corner; dog parks are flourishing as are dog walkers and pet sitters. Groomers are raking it in. According to Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, "Retailers know it and always go to where their [young professionals] demographics are."

According to every thing I have read, the pet industry seems to be holding its own in this economy. It seems that parents will always indulge their offspring, even if they are covered with fur.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wanted: Rider

Well it seems I spoke too soon. Mike Smith has relinquished his seat aboard Mine That Bird for the Belmont and it seems as if another change is possible. Personally, I would love to see Borel back on board if only because it creates the possibility of a personal Triple Crown--and who wouldn't love to spin that story?

In an admirable display of loyalty, Mike Smith has decided to honor his commitment to ride Madeo in the Charlie Whittingham Stakes at Hollywood Park the same day as the Belmont. "Mike is really loyal to our program," commented John Shirreffs, trainer of Madeo, who noted that Smith committed to Madeo before he rode Mine That Bird."The fact that Mike never asked to be released from his commitment on Madeo says a lot about his character."

Smith himself clarified: "They are my first call people, and they have done so much for my career. This is an important race for Madeo and I need to be there. I would never ask them to get out of my commitment."

What a saga. You couldn't have made this up if you tried! Lots of speculation, naturally, about what trainer of Mine That Bird, Chip Wooley, will do and Chantal Sutherland, ironically Mike Smith's girlfriend and one of Mine That Bird's steady riders before he hit the big time, is being touted as a possibility.

Not that anyone has the final call but the trainer, but in a year when a Triple Crown is once again an impossibility, the possibility of a personal one for Borel would go far to boost the Belmont's ratings and perhaps add to attendance.

Never mind what the moral of that story would be if it came to pass. (That the only way to win a Triple Crown these days is with multiple horses?) It would keep things interesting and racing needs all the interest it can get!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Girl Power

I'm reading this amazing book about a former climber, Greg Mortenson, who has made a career out of building schools for children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. You may have heard of the book, Three Cups of Tea, and I highly recommend it. At one point in his journey of learning how to work within the "systems" of both countries, he makes the observation that one of the keys to changing the perception of the United States in these Muslim countries, is the education of women. Put simply, women have the ability to change the world.

Well it seems that horse racing is catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to sharing that opinion. Rachel Alexandra's victory in the Preakness on Saturday has the sports world atwitter in possibility and it seems that the beautiful and talented filly keeps racking up admirers and fans. Could this be the hero that the racing industry has long been waiting for?

Certainly the fans at Pimlico on Saturday were swept away with the superstar before she even beat the boys at their own game! They were chanting her name as she walked to the paddock to be saddled. Ratings are up and all of a sudden, even without the possibility of a Triple Crown, racing is exciting again.

I hope it continues but I seriously doubt if Rachel will run in the Belmont. First of all, it is too long a race for her and second of all, she has nothing to prove and lots to lose. Jackson could retire her tomorrow and breed her to Curlin to produce his new breed of horse and no one would begrudge him that option. It would be amazing, however, if he let her keep racing until the Fall, but of course, with each race comes the risk of injury.

I predict that Mine That Bird will take the Belmont easily. A few more lengths and he would have won the Preakness, in my opinion, and IF Borel were to change horses once again (BUT HE WON'T--SMITH HAS ALREADY BEEN GIVEN THE BELMONT MOUNT), there would have been the possibility of a personal Triple Crown for the jockey to keep things interesting.

Still--no complaints. People are watching. People are talking and it it takes a girl to save the sport, well then why should it be any different than anything else?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Puppy Power

No we didn't get another dog but here's the next best thing to puppy smells: a link that gives you your daily fix!


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Meet Cooper

Meet Cooper, the newest Clydesdale!

How cute is he?! Cooper, about a week old in this photo, is the first Clydesdale born in the new breeding facility created for the Anheuser-Busch horses in central Missouri. The recently opened 347 acre farm is testimony to the strength of the breed that has become synonymous with Budweiser. Even though the parent company recently became a subsidiary of InBev of Belgium (the corporate name is now officially Anheuser-Busch InBev), support for the Clydesdales has never been stronger.

The new farm is just one example of Anheuser-Busch's investment in these gentle giant horses. The 22,000 square foot barn has a veterinary lab and 34 stalls on the main floor, all monitored by video camera.

Anheuser-Busch owns about 250 Clydesdales and is largely responsible for keeping the breed alive in this country. Its teams made nearly 900 appearances at 200 different events last year. Up to five hitches hit the road at any given time and the logistic demands for a traveling team are staggering.

You can read more about these fabulous horses here, just one more example of how horses have become associated with strength, longevity and loyalty.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Tick Removal

'Tis the season for ticks and I bring you expert advice as to how to remove them from your pets, courtesy of and Dr. Patricia Conrad, parasitologist.

Here, according to Dr. Conrad, is the best way to remove a tick from your pet:
Grasp the tick firmly wth hemostats (aka tweezers) as close to the skin as possible. Pull gently but firmly straight away from the skin until the tick comes out. Do not twist. Avoid grasping the tick’s abdomen. This can cause regurgitation of stomach contents into your pet, increasing the likelihood of Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and other scary tick-borne diseases.
Some other points: tick prevention is better than tick removal. In my experience, Frontline is the tick preventative with the best safety and efficacy profile. No tick preventative is 100% effective.
Finally, think at least six times (twice is nowhere near enough) before removing a tick from your cat. Healthy cats almost never suffer from tick infestation due to their good grooming habits.

The best way to remove ticks is to prevent them and even though the chemicals in Frontline give me reason to pause, I use it anyway since Phoebe had Lyme disease once and it was no fun.

Stay safe!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Infield Madness

When I interviewed the Jacksons after their horrible Preakness experience in 2006, one thing that surprised me was that the whole family remarked on the terrible traffic situation they had encountered leaving Pimlico racetrack. Barbaro may have had a police escort, but by the time the family made their way back to their cars, the parking lot was a sea of drunken people. I don't know if you've ever been to Pimlico, but it is not in the nicest area of Baltimore. Nearly every member of the Jackson entourage commented on the rowdy crowd that seemed to follow them as they slowly made their way out of the neighborhood.

Sadly, the Preakness has come to be known as a massive party by the thousands who flood the infield. They open up the track at 8:00 AM for what rapidly becomes a beer-fest and by race time (usually 6:00 PM), no one in the infield has any idea who is running. Most don't even watch the races.

Well it seems the Maryland Jockey Club is finally cracking down on the free-for-all by prohibiting infield goers from bringing their own coolers stocked with libations. According to an article in the New York Times, the decision has not been popular with the college crowd, but may in fact eliminate some of the out of control behavior that has dominated the infield in recent years.

There still will be a party atmosphere with rock bands, a professional beach volleyball match, an oxygen bar and a virtual-reality paintball station, and there certainly will be plenty of bars where patrons can purchase beer for $3.50 a pop. "We believed it was time for a change and to provide entertainment and activities for our guests. And as a sidebar issue about safety, some of the shenanigans had to stop," said Tom Chuckas, president and COO of the Maryland Jockey Club.

Seems to me like a pretty good compromise and if it keeps some of the rowdies away, well all the better. After all, the day is supposed to be all about horses, not about how much you can drink.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Changing Horses Mid-Stream

The Preakness is going to be quite a race. New owner, Jess Jackson, has revealed that if all goes according to plan, he is going to supplement Rachel Alexandra to the Preakness. And Calvin Borel, her regular jockey, has agreed to ride her.

Which of course leaves Mine that Bird, jockey-less, although lots of options are being bandied around. One is Mike Smith, a Hall of Fame rider with a knack for riding come from behind horses. The other is Chantal Sutherland, who just happens to be Mike Smith's girlfriend and is one of Mine that Bird's regular riders. Wouldn't you just love to be at that kitchen table?

Regardless, it is a historic move, changing horses mid-stream and not just any horse but the Kentucky Derby winner. I can see the issue both ways. Borel obviously has a lot more invested in his relationship with Rachel Alexandra, having ridden her for most of her career. At the same time, it is almost unheard of to abandon a Derby mount, especially for one that poses direct competition to the Derby winner.

Some have argued that it would have been better for racing in general if Borel has stayed with Mine That Bird. Others understand his decision based on longevity. I think that either way, it is good for the sport. People are still going to tune in to see if Mine That Bird has a chance at the Triple Crown. And now they have another reason to watch: to see if Borel made the right decision.

Either way, it is shaping up to be an interesting and exciting race and that always bodes well for the sport.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mother Nature Leaves Her Mark

Sad news: the rabbits did not make it past their fourth night. After yesterday's photo session when all appeared to be going so well, I woke this morning to discover two dead bunnies. I cannot find the third but the two dead ones already had rigor mortis when I discovered them so they clearly expired some time during the night.

There are two explanations. One is that something happened to the mother because she did not return to feed them last night. The other is that something was wrong with two of the babies and she retrieved the third one and headed for a new nest.

I have no way of knowing which scenario actually happened and I can't believe I felt as sad as I did when I checked the nest this morning. I know it is the circle of life and that rabbits probably have so many offspring because not all of them make it past the critical two week phase, but I thought things were going so well.

One thing I do know is that my dogs were not to blame since the rabbits had not been moved and did not appear to have been physically harmed. We did the best we could and have to trust that Mother Nature knows what she is doing.

Still, it was amazing while it lasted. . .

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail

Here's the four day update on the rabbits. They are growing like wildflowers and it is hard to believe that in the space of four days they have transformed from slimy, mice-like creatures to honest to goodness baby rabbits.

I spotted the mother (at least I think it was the mother) this morning hopping around our fence, probably in search of food. Clearly she is returning to the nest at some point because these rabbits are thriving!

Today when the sun came out, they crawled out from under the fur and that's when I snapped these photos. Their eyes are still closed.

Tell me they are not the cutest things you have ever seen! The most miraculous thing is that they are co-existing with the dogs, who "check on them" periodically, but then are content to leave them alone.


Monday, May 11, 2009

Almost Perfect

Here's a book full of feel-good stories for pet lovers. The first book of its kind to focus solely on stories about disabled pets and their human companions, Almost Perfect Disabled Pets and the People Who Love Them is filled with essays by eleven contributors from three different countries about domestic pets whose special needs changed their owners' lives.

There is Simon, a three-legged barn car whose persistence keeps him hopping along. And Cagney, a paraplegic rat whose serves as a muse to a surprised grad student. Or Ruby the Lab-Doberman mix who adapts to a muscle eating disease and rolls around with the help of a cart.

Mary Shafer, publisher and editor of the book, writes about her own special needs cats, including Idgie, who is blind and was adopted by Shafer after the cats mother abandoned it.

Sounds like a feel-good read just perfect for these trying times. If you can't follow Ben Stein's advice to get a dog, maybe you can be inspired by those who got more than special pets.

You can read more about the book, including an excerpt here.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Den Mother

Just in time for Mother's Day, I bring you the story of our backyard rabbits.

Yesterday, Sam and Amos were very intent on digging up something in the backyard. I sent my daughter out to investigate, thinking it was a bee's nest. I am allergic and thought I would follow up with the bug spray if it was. Instead she called for help as she tried to hold the dogs back.

I ran out to discover an underground rabbits nest and newborn rabbits crawling around. They couldn't have been more than a few hours old--about three inches long, yet with unmistakable signs of big, floppy ears. There were bits of fur scattered around the nest and twigs, but no sign of the mother.

We hastily improvised a small white garden fence to ring off the nest from the dogs but quickly determined that this wasn't going to keep them out indefinitely. After experimenting with an old dog crate with the bottom removed, which was the perfect height and strength but didn't have holes large enough to let the mother come and go, we opted for an old plastic folding play yard that we found in the basement. We left the opening where you attach the two ends together, slightly open so that the mother could come in and out but the dogs couldn't.

That's the picture below. The one above is the nest itself with twigs crossed to let us know if the mother returns.

So far so good. When I checked them yesterday morning, there were still signs of life. The most amazing thing was that when we first found them, the fur was scattered all over. When we checked them again before dark, they were covered with it. It was possible that the mother had already come back once.

According to the Internet, the mother rabbit is nesting about 20 yds. away, guarding her babies from predators. She only returns, once every twenty four hours. In the meantime, we need to keep these babies safe for the first two critical weeks.

As they say, never a dull moment. Can we get two golden retrievers and a collie to peacefully co-exist with a nest full of rabbits? Stay tuned.

And happy mother's day to everyone who lobbies for peaceful co-existence

Saturday, May 9, 2009

More on Madeleine Pickens

The New York Times ran a nice piece on Madeleine Pickens early last week detailing her involvement in thoroughbred racing. Pickens' first husband was the late Allen Paulson, who owned a number of top notch racehorses, including Cigar.

Pickens, like Gretchen Jackson, admits she was originally ignorant about the existence of horse slaughter even when she and her husband were big time owners. "All the years, we'd had something like 800 horses, and it never occurred to me that there could be something like horse slaughter," she said. "There would be an injured horse, and I'd say, 'What will happen?' And they'd say, 'The glue factory.' I thought they were joking."

Paulson died in 2000 and Madeleine continued in the business, campaigning Rock Hard Ten who finished second to Smarty Jones in the Preakness. She was intending to disengage herself from the sport. About two weeks before her wedding to T. Boone Pickens, however, she received a phone call from Michael Blowen, founder of the wonderful equine sanctuary, Old Friends. He told Pickens that he had found her first Breeder's Cup Champion, Fraise, and he was bringing him home. Pickens had sold Fraise to Japanese buyers and was told that he had been sent to a riding school.

Pickens paid for the transport of Fraise and another Grade I stakes winner, Ogygian, to Kentucky and began to advocate against slaughter with the support of her husband. They do their work through the Humane Society of the United States and you know the rest--she hopes to create a sanctuary for the wild mustangs on federal land in the West.

The latest on the plan is that it has gained the support of Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and has been released by the Committee of Natural Resources to the full House for a future vote.

"If you take the horse off the range, you now have a moral obligation to take care of that horse for the rest of its life," according to Pickens. "We are personally responsible for these horses."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Sale of Rachel Alexandra

The racing world is abuzz with the sale of Rachel Alexandra to Jess Jackson and partners, Harold T. McCormick, Dolphus Morrison and Mike Lauffer. Quite a development that has insiders wondering if this means the Kentucky Oaks winner may challenge the boys in the Preakness. The terms of the deal were kept confidential by both parties.

"Rachel Alexandra is one of the best horses in racing today," said Jackson. "She is fast, strong, durable--the traits we should all be breeding into all future generation of race horses. Her beauty and athleticism will thrill thousands of fans."

While Jackson has admitted that Rachel Alexandra's racing days are far from over, he also made no secret of his intention to breed Rachel Alexandra to Curlin when her racing days are over. It is his intention to breed a "new" type of horse, featuring speed, strength and durability.

"We are tremendously excited by the prospect of one day seeing the offspring of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra," said Jackson. "But for now, the story of this filly is still being written. My four daughters and granddaughter will be delighted this super filly will race in our colors."

Rumor has it that jockey Calvin Borel, who has mounts on both Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird, will choose Rachel Alexandra.

As they say, stay tuned.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Second Chancee

The Wall Street Journal magazine, WSJ, (sorry no link--subscription only) has a nice piece on the Second Chance program run by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. In this program, retired racehorses are paired up with prison inmates who, in learning to care for the horses, become certified to be elite grooms.

The article focuses on the James River Correctional facility in Virginia, but the program operates at eight correctional facilities around the country including Walkill Correctional facility in upstate New York, where it all started. Bill Heller tells the wonderful story of this initial prisoner-thoroughbred partnership in his book, After the Finish Line.

The results at all the programs seem to be the same. Everyone wins, big time. "It's a win-win situation: a win for the prison system and a win for retired racehorses with no place to go," says Howard Nolan, a state senator from Albany County who dreamed up the idea in 1982.

"The horses are one of the bet rehab tools I've seen. After a month, the men are completely attached to the animals," Brandy Nixon, prison counselor at the James River facility told WSJ. "Even the biggest, broadest, strongest prisoner stands in the shadow of a thoroughbred."

The Second Chance program is endowed by the late Paul Mellon, who owned the Kentucky derby winner Sea Hero. But they are always looking for donations, admits Director Diana Pikulski. "Taking donors to the prisons and seeing the success of rehabbing the horses and prisoners is probably our most effective fund raising tool," she says.

As for the prisoners, well they learn the responsibility and selflessness that comes from taking care of another living being, and in the process, they learn a trade. Inmate Tamio Holmes, who has 22 months left on a six-year drug sentence, says he hopes to start a work-release program, perhaps at a racetrack when his sentence nears its end. There is also the possibility of employment in a private stable facility.

"I've gone to prison a few times," he admits. "But it's the horses that are going to keep me out of here for good."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Healing Austism in Mongolia

Temple Grandin, the professor who has become famous for using her autism to experience the world from an animal's point of view, has certainly documented the connection that autistic people seem to have with animals. Rupert Issacson, however, has gone even further. Desperate to help his autistic son, who was five at the time, the travel writer decided to pack up the family and go to Mongolia, to seek the healing advice of some shamans he had met, and to let his son ride the wild Mogolian horses.

The result was impressive. According to Issacson's new book, The Horse Boy, his son Rowan's worst behavioral issues have all but disappeared. The book is reviewed in last week's New York Times, and the story is fascinating.

Apparently Mr. Issacson's publishers (Little Brown) thought so highly of the idea that they paid him a $1 million advance before they had taken the trip and knew whether or not the idea was going to be successful. The fact that it was, however, has placed the book in an entirely new arena and, as you can imagine, movie deals are pending.

Prior to their journey, horse back riding had proved to be one of the only therapies that calmed and soothed Rowan. Issacson had also taken his son to a convention of non-traditional healers and had some success.

Certainly not everyone can pack up their family and head to Mongolia, and doctors warn against looking for a miracle. They do however, admit that autistic children sometimes make leaps in their development. The question is whether or not Rowan would have made the same leaps without going to Mongolia.

Issacson and his wife have used part of the book advance to start a ranch where other autistic children can ride. He also said the rigors of their trip were especially suited to Rowan's temperament, even though there were plenty of times when Rowan had tantrums and refused to get anywhere near a horse.

I guess you'll just have to read it for yourself. In the meantime, it demonstrates, once again, that we will literally go to the ends of the earth to try and help the ones we love.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Barbaro Still the Center of Attention

It seems as if the new Barbaro statue outside Gate 1 at Churchill Downs has already become a landmark. The Kansas City Star reports that "no one, not even those intent on speeding through the security stop at Gate 1, failed to take a minute to drink in the bronze sculpture that Alexa King has wrought..."

And many of those that paused, had their picture taken in front of the 2006 Kentucky Derby Champion. Some even joked that having their picture taken in front of the statue had become a tradition. The more knowledgeable race-goers even commented that the toe grabs depicted on the statue are now illegal.

The statue was the center of attention the day after the Derby when the connections of Mine That Bird briefly draped the garland of roses over the rail of the statue in tribute to the late champion and then proceeded to hand out the roses to the Derby fans who were visiting the Museum the day after the race.

"This is a tribute to a great horse," trainer Chip Woolley, Jr. said. "I wanted everyone to have a little piece of the Derby. We wanted to give something back to the game. We just want to show how important horses really are. That's what this is all about. We want people to know just how important these horses really are to us. They're not just animals, they're a part of us."

Well said and well done.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Bird of Paradise

So we wanted a story and we sure got one. In fact, it's so much better than any we were hoping for (General Quarters, Friesan Fire) because no one saw it coming. Including the jockey.

I'm speaking, of course, of Mine That Bird's amazing win in the Kentucky Derby and even more so of the Hall of Fame ride jockey Calvin Borel gave the horse. I heard him interviewed on the radio on Sunday morning and he was, as always, totally honest, admitting he had no idea the horse would respond the way he did, but he rode him like you have to ride in the Derby--like you have a shot and you are going to win. In fact, he said he rode him "like a good horse" and what a horse he turned out to be.

He runs just like his father Birdstone, who came from out of nowhere to win the Belmont and spoil Smarty Jones' Triple Crown Bid. From last to first, like he could run all day. I think it is safe to say that distance is not a factor for this horse and the Belmont should be a romp in the park--especially if it happens to rain a little.

I was impressed with the horse. He pulled away coming down the stretch under a strong hand ride from Borel and came back hardly wet. Plus for all the talk about his laconic trainer, I like his style. He says he will wait and see what the horse "tells" him about competing in the Preakness and he also purchased the horse as a gelding because he wanted a race horse not a stallion.

All of which is incredibly good for the sport. Yes, it would have been an equally good feel-good story for General Quarters to win one for the retired high school principal, but this is even better. A $9,500 horse makes racing accessible for an awful lot of people and has the racing elite shaking their heads in wonder. A win like this reminds us what racing is all about in the first place: the fact that anything can happen.

I'm also thrilled that this horse is going to be around for a while because there is no rush to the breeding shed. If I were Alex Waldrop (president of the NTRA) I'd race to embrace the Mine that Bird Camp because they are going to do a lot for the sport by simply being themselves.

I'm on board the Bird train. In fact, I'm singing his song!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Just About Right...Again

William Rhoden, longtime sportswriter for the New York Times, is one of the best in the business. In fact, I quote him in my thesis. An excerpt:

Two months before Barbaro died, longtime New York Times sportswriter, William Rhoden, noted that Barbaro had "become a multilayered symbol of heart, heroism and animal rights." While I would substitute the term "welfare" for "rights," Rhoden has the ingredients just about right. The "heart and heroics" are part of Barbaro's appeal as a survivor, but it was the "animal rights" piece" that underscores the role that Barbaro's injury played in attracting a larger audience.

I go on to suggest that Barbaro's transformation from "glistening thoroughbred" to "injured animal" helped broaden his appeal to the larger world of animal lovers versus horse people and/or racing fans. But enough abut me.

I was thrilled to see that Rhoden has a fabulous piece in Friday's New York Times about horse slaughter. He recounts the Stacy Hancock story that resulted in her persuading her husband, Arthur, to buy back Gato del Sol from his German owners and let him live out his life on their farm. It also puts Alex Waldrop of the NTRA on the spot, forcing him to acknowledge that slaughter does exist, although he attributes it to "a high demand for horse meat around the world."

Regardless, Rhoden's authority and credibility go a long way to exposing "racing's dirty little secret" and reminding the industry to put the interests of its athletes about its financial needs: "A sport that refers to its animals as athletes shouldn't send them to slaughter. This industry desperately needs an infusion of ethics and backbone so that it can uphold our covenant with the American thoroughbred."


Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Derby Toast

Here's a quote from Roy Jackson that should give you pause on this Derby Day. He told Inquirer reporter Mike Jensen how he sometimes goes to the Turf Club in Philadelphia to watch one of his horses run. He'll sit there and listen to the "old timers" handicap a race and has frequently heard one or more of them say: "I'm not going to bet on this race. There's too many druggie trainers in it."

Wow. That should stand your hair on end. Not only what the patrons said but the fact that Roy Jackson repeated it. It's time for horse racing to come clean in more ways than one and until it does, almost everything, including the pageantry, sentimentality and excitement associated with today's Kentucky Derby, should all be suspect.

Yes, I know there is something terribly seductive about those fancy hats, blooming flowers and mint juleps, but the Kentucky Derby is really not about the people. It is about the horses and until the powers that be recognize that, all the hoopla in the world is not going to save the sport.

The truth of the matter is that Churchill Downs makes enough money during Derby week to cover its expenses for the rest of its racing meet. And that probably will never change since the Derby is America's oldest continuous sporting events. And even this year, with the economy on the skids, I predict a capacity crowd even though the handle might be down a bit.

As Ernie Paragallo personifies, there will always be humans who put their need ahead of the horses. There needs to be oversight in the sport that would ban unethical behavior at every level of involvement.

Here's to safe racing today and always. That is something worth toasting.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Factory Farms and Swine Flu

For all the talk about swine flu and the possibility of a pandemic (from what I read the true danger relates to the fact that the virus can go "undercover" for a while and reappear at a later date when we are less prepared to deal with it), there has been little talk about the practice of factory farming, which from all indications seems to breed viruses. Granted, not all of these viruses are transmitted from animal to human, but the very fact that this practice creates viruses with the potential to do so, is reason alone for the United States to take a long hard look at its agricultural practices.

As Regina Weiss, a policy analyst and communications director for Sustainable Table notes, "concentrated feeding operations--massive facilities where thousands of animals are closely confined--are ideal breeding grounds for new infectious agents. . . In fact, the threat is so well known that, in 2004, the owner of a Nebraska factory farm told a reporter he seldom visits his own facility due to "bio-hazard" concerns."

And yet, California remains the only state in the nation to have recently passed a law to make factory farms more humane. One need only look as far as the recent outbreaks of mad cow disease and avian flu to get the picture. We need to reform these practices and we need to enforce these reforms before it is too late.

Jill Howard Church, writing on behalf on the Animals & Society Institute, notes "few of us in the animal protection community will be surprised to hear that the current swine flu outbreak that's feverishly in the news was first detected in a Mexican village known for its stinky pig manure. . .Residents of La Gloria have long complained about the stench and the flies near the hog farms' huge manure pits, but nothing has changed."

Short of becoming a vegetarian (and I'm not even sure that is the answer--remember the recent spinach contamination?) or growing your own food, consumers can purchase products from local farms where, ideally, humane methods are used to raise and slaughter their livestock.

Obama needs to overhaul the FDA, appoint a food czar with experience and a Board with oversight over the entire operation. And today could not be soon enough.