Respect and Gratitude: For the Love of the Horse

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60,000 fans pay tribute to Orfevre at Nakayama Racecourse in Japan 60,000 fans pay tribute to Orfevre at Nakayama Racecourse in Japan

I used to believe in Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, too.

I’m afraid to say I’ve carried some of those childhood beliefs and naivete well into my adult life, though I did stop leaving cookies and milk out for Santa on Christmas Eve some years ago.

Some of that naivete emerges when I watch old newsreels of horse racing in the “golden era.” Packed grandstands, full fields, lively competition, star horses running through their 4- and 5-year-old seasons. We were exposed to a lot of those old films during the Hollywood Park nostalgia tour that’s taken place over the last few days. They say 13,000 people paid their way in and several thousand others walked through the gates after admission fees were dropped on Hollywood’s final day of racing. There was amazement by some at how many fans wanted to say goodbye to an institution that’s been around for three-quarters of a century.


But why be amazed? Not that long ago, in 1980, Hollywood Park averaged over 30,000 on-track fans every day of its spring-summer meeting.

Let’s take a trip to the other side of the world, Japan, where 124,782 fans turned out for the season-ending Arima Kinen horse race. It’s a special event where the fans select the invitees through popular vote.

This year’s star attraction was former Japan Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year Orfevre, who twice went to France in an attempt to become the first Japanese winner of the Arc de Triomphe. Two times he came up just short, finishing second to Solemia in 2012 and to the brilliant filly Treve this year.

The 5-year-old son of the Sunday Silence stallion Stay Gold gave the fans a performance for the ages, accelerating with a dynamic burst of speed on the turn for home and drawing away to win by eight lengths.

What happened later that day, though, was just as breathtaking as Orfevre’s powerful run. After the final race of the card, with darkness and cool temperatures setting in, an estimated 60,000 fans stood in appreciation as Orfevre was brought back in front of the stands for a special retirement ceremony. He pranced in the spotlight, much like Cigar did in November 1996 when a special retirement ceremony was held for the two-time Horse of the Year and conqueror of the first Dubai World Cup. That moving ceremony was not held at a racetrack but at Madison Square Garden in New York, site of the National Horse Show.

There were tears that day at Madison Square Garden. I have first-hand knowledge. I’m sure there were tears at Nakayama, too.

Imagine, 60,000 people standing quietly, watching a horse walk back and forth in a spotlight, prancing a bit, his neck arched, his sprit still soaring from the day’s competition.

Why are so many fans still there? What are they thinking? What is the special connection, the bond, the fans feel with that animal?

Then consider this.

Are those fans really that different than us? If the answer is “no,” then how do we build those special moments, where the collective appreciation and respect for these marvelous creatures is so profound?

It may be naïve of me to say, but this game of ours may live off the gamble and feed off the glamour, but it begins and ends with the horse.

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  • Plaza South

    “The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears” Arab Proverb

    • J_W_C_NM

      A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse! – Shakespeare’s Richard III
      Go, Baby, Go – NYRA
      WTF? – millennial racing fan

  • Knowitall

    Ray, your final sentence is as good an epitaph as will ever be written for this Sport. And the good ‘ol boys of the myriad alphabet soups that never seemed to understand that simple edict can scrape up one final collection plate to pay for the headstone.

  • Evelyn Waugh

    I am awed.

    Orfevre: The mighty grandson of the Unforgettable…Sunday Silence.

    May you live long & prosper.

  • Alexa Pilcher

    No words for this .. thank you sooo much for posting this video ..

  • hadrianmarcus

    I see some things in this video that have all but disappeared from American horse racing….like respect for tradition, excellent customer service, and a five year old horse…not rushed into the breeding shed but instead allowed to contribute to the ‘sport’ of horse racing…rather than the ‘industry’ of breeding.

  • betterthannothing

    “…how do we build those special moments, where the collective appreciation and respect for these marvelous creatures is so profound?

    It may be naïve of me to say, but this game of ours may live off the gamble and feed off the glamour, but it begins and ends with the horse.”

    Absolutely! Ray, thank you for that great piece. The only way to build those special moments and in the process save horses, restore reputation and boost business and crowds is by ALWAYS put the welfare and safety of all race horses first, throughout their entire lives.

  • LaraH2

    beautiful animal but he was clearly unhappy with what was in his mouth. i know people are going to flame, but i daresay the arch in his neck was due to his mouth gear. a beautiful story ray.

    good wishes and run free big boy …

    • Quilla

      Agreed.

      On both counts.

      • betterthannothing

        I agree with those who think that the farewell ceremony was an ordeal for Orfevre who had just raced and had no clue about what was happening to him. At some point he was very nervous and so close to the rail, I was afraid he was going to kick it and hurt himself.

        • Gadflies

          Nah, he was just kind of high, nothing unusual there.

  • Fallbrook

    With the closing of Hollywood park I think about one of my horses. He raced at the park once back in 1984, trained by Richard Mulhall owned by Birdsell and MLM Stable. He will soon be 33 years old and I know the time I have had with him will too come to an end. I wish they could talk.I wonder if anyone would remember this little claimer . He seems to have been all over, born in Ireland raced in the UK , here and once in Mexico. 1983 to 1987. He is a winner and even if he didn’t he would be to me This is my 25th Christmas with this wonderful animal . To all the ottb ‘s in the world I hope you all find good homes. Farewell Hollywood Park .I have never been there, but Lawyers Choice was. Happy Holidays!

  • Michelle Sanford

    That was WONDERFUL …from someone who understands what it means to love horses..how they enrich my existence and give me joy and warmth in my heart.
    I watched Saturday as Orfevre ran for the last time. I had not yet gone to the Japanese race site to see if they had shown the farewell..so Thank You!
    I was at HP Sunday to give myself closure. After working there for 30 years this is a death for sure.
    It did not have to be, and the true horsemen and horse lovers know this. We however are not the one’s with financial backing. This was a case of money/ greed over what racetrack goers want.
    I will cherish my memories, both equine and human.
    I hope there is a DVD in the making like the in house loop that has been played over the years of the great races that were run at Hollywood Park.
    And I hope to meet you Ray on of these days.

  • Marshall Cassidy

    As spectacle, simply beautiful on many levels. Thanks for bringing Orfevre’s retirement ceremony to our attention.

  • Terrie weiss

    Don’t be so excited. These are the same people who ATE our Kentucky derby winner and continue to eat horses!

  • Tana Rae

    You nailed it, Ray. Always respect and gratitude for the horse. And awe. For serving mankind for centuries with noble character: Kindness, gentleness, and willingness to perform (or please), our trusty steeds have been there for us. Let us be there for them.

  • padockboot

    Greatness needs no translation and is not bound by borders or the stuff of human creation. Horses like Orfevre come along so rarely. What a gift to be able to share in the admiration and respect for one of racing’s greats! Merry Christmas, Ray!

  • Ben

    Thanks for your niece piece . . . and thanks for all you do for this business.

    As I fed my horses this Christmas morning, I thanked God for giving me the will and he resources to own and care for these wonderful creatures.

    My favorite my is having some issues today, and hopefully will be better soon.

    It is my prayer today that she gets better. And that we all find ways to improve this
    sport in 2014.

    Merry Christmas, everyone from deep in the heart of Texas.

  • Ben

    Pardon. Should have proofread it. That is my favorite mare is having some issues.

  • 4Bellwether666

    Nice…Looked to me as though he was more than ready to Rumble one more time!!!…Hope he has a long happy life…

  • Convene

    It has been said that the horse allows the human spirit to fly – and I believe that it is so. They are our wings and the essence of freedom. Perhaps the problem is that too many people now are tethered to earthbound endeavors and too few spirits still long to fly free. Happily – mine is not one of them! Long live the horse, whatever his job – and long live his ability to carry skyward anyone who longs to fly with him.

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