Those who have dealt with the loss of a horse know all too well how utterly devastating it can be. It is life-changing in the cruelest of ways. Your world comes crashing down around you, especially when the loss is sudden and unexpected, and it takes time to pick up the pieces and move forward, knowing that you lost a part of yourself when your horse took his or her last breath.
It's not just those who ride for fun who experience this kind of devastation when such tragedy occurs. They are not the only ones who develop a love so strong for an animal that they think of them as family and treat them as such. Regardless of the type of equestrian sport, from dressage and jumping to reining and racing, for those who are involved with horses for what I would deem “the right reasons,” the love of the horse transcends disciplines, accomplishments, the role one plays in a horse's life and more.
Last year racing lost a great horse. His name was Shared Belief and he was a mighty little package. Standing all of 15.2 hands, he was bursting at the seams with energy and talent and often looked like a horse-shaped kite, as he seemed to levitate at the end of a lead shank rather than simply walk with his handlers.
In his 12 lifetime starts, he lost only twice – once in the 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic, when he simply had bad racing luck. Enduring endless traffic trouble that would have seen most horses “spit the bit” and finish last, Shared Belief battled courageously and finished a gutsy fourth to Bayern. His only other loss came in the Charlestown Classic, in which he pulled up due to a fractured hip and was just coming back from that injury at the time of his passing last year due to colic.
Last week, Jim Rome, who owned Shared Belief along with his wife Janet, Alex Solis Jr., Jason Litt, Jerry Hollendorfer, Kim and Kevin Nash and George Todaro, gave the keynote address at the 2016 Thoroughbred Owner Conference presented by OwnerView. Known for his aggressive “let's be real” style of interviewing, he is one of the most recognizable voices in sports as both a radio and television host. Rising to fame on ESPN with his interview show Rome Is Burning, he transitioned to CBS in 2011, where he hosts The Jim Rome Show on CBS Sports Radio, hosts a Showtime sports talk show bearing his name that's a combination of interviews, profiles, in-depth features and provocative monologues and does regular sports commentary for the network.
The speech was not what one would expect from someone known for being thick-skinned and pulling no punches. It was gracious, emotional, funny and honest. He talked about his love for horse racing, but even more so, his love for horses – his love for his horses.
He spoke of his great race mare, Mizdirection, the dual Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner who he described as “the love of his life,” aside from his wife and kids. He told the story of how he and his family went to see her in the middle of the night after her second Breeders' Cup win to say goodbye before she shipped to Kentucky and was sold. He spoke of taking his family on vacation and visiting the mare at her new home in France and the joy he felt in seeing her once again, happy in the new phase of her life.
He told the story of how he came to love Shared Belief, and how lucky he was to be along for the ride with the larger-than-life horse who won five Grade 1 races. He also recounted the day Shared Belief died, begging whatever higher power would listen and help, not to take the horse.
“Right before I go on the radio, I get a phone call one minute before air. I look at my phone and it's from Alex. I know our rhythms, I know when he calls me. This is not good news. Alex Solis would not call me one minute before my radio program unless something bad happened.
I said, 'Alex, what's going on?'
He said, 'Jim, your horse has colic…' Alex says, 'Jim, I think it's bad. He has colic. We're rushing him to the clinic. We're rushing him to U.C. Davis to the clinic. We have to operate.'
I said, 'alright, just keep me informed.'
I hang up and I have to do my radio show. I can't tell this to anybody. Things have to go on. All I can think to myself, and I'm not a terribly spiritual person and I do not ask anyone for anything….'Do not take this horse. Do. Not. Take. This. Horse. I don't care if he never runs again. He needs to be at the Kentucky [Horse] Park or on a farm where people can visit him and love him and respect him. Please, do not take this horse.'
About an hour and a half later Alex called me and goes, 'Jim, they couldn't save him, they couldn't save him.'
Now I'm doing my radio show and Shared Belief is gone. The horse is gone. I finish my show, I go to my office and I was a 51-year-old man crying at my desk. I'd just made this joke on the radio, you can't cry at work. I don't care if you didn't get that sale or your boss yells at you, you don't cry at work – ever – unless something bad happens. Well, something really bad happened.
My first call was to Mike Smith and he was crying. He didn't start crying, he was already crying.
He said, 'Jim, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry…'
The horse is gone – I'm never going to get to see the horse again, I didn't get to say goodbye to the horse. The horse is gone, just like that. The night before the horse was great – he was going to breeze that week! It seems cliché and trite, but if you have a horse, go hug your horse, because you just don't know, you just never, ever know…It's very difficult. It's been very, very hard.
I am going to get to a point one time, one day, where I'm only thinking about the good times. How lucky we were to know this horse, how lucky we were to have a horse of a lifetime in our lives. We're better for it. We're all better for it. Who am I to say how sad I am? I'm sad for the people who lived with the horse, the grooms who took care of the horse.
The speech was humanizing. It united those who were in attendance and those who viewed it online with one common thread – the love of the horse. It reminded Thoroughbred owners, trainers, and anyone else who works in the industry why they do what they do.
To those outside of the industry, it gives a glimpse into a world that many times seems all too callous — one that doesn't often put the love of the horse front and center when communicating to the outside world.
I encourage you to listen to the full speech if you have time. Instead of playing Pandora or Spotify, take the time to enjoy the verbalization of how you too probably feel from the unlikeliest of sources.
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