A Strange Place for one of Life's Crueler Lessons
So here we are at the Hot Dog Ranch, me and two 8 year old boys. Things were getting a little exciting as the Kentucky Derby was put on all but one of the overhead TVs. The sound had been turned up so that the call of the race was the only thing anyone heard in the place.
I had just told the two boys that Aunt Kate had proclaimed Big Brown one of the best horses she had ever seen and that we should cheer him on. When Big Brown pulled even around the fourth corner I found myself being the guy who pounds the table encouraging an athlete a thousand miles away as though I were trackside. When Big Brown ran away from the field to win, all three of us at the table were hooting and hollering. For 15 or maybe 20 seconds it was a lot of fun.
And then the TV camera swung quickly back to a horse lying on its side.
I knew it was bad but tried to explain to the kids that it might be something minor.
"Maybe the horse fainted." proclaimed one of the boys.
"Maybe...." I said.
The bald headed man who had been standing behind the NBC correspondent on the last trackside report had put his walkie-talkie down and now was facing the camera. His eyes were red. He was introduced as the head veterinarian at the Derby. His manner was professional and he spoke in a very matter of fact terms, but when he said she had broken both ankles and was "euthanized immediately" you saw the angst on his face and you seemed to hear an audible gasp from those immediately around him.
Most of the restaurant patrons, including my two young guests, missed this bit of news. The TV hosts kept trying to figure out what they should say, how they should act and just how they should balance the simultaneous stories of a victory circle while another horse was being put out of her misery.
Eventually one of the boys asked, "What's euthanized?"
I told him as gently as I could.
"You mean they killed her?"
"Yeah. She's dead." I bluntly confirmed, acting brave even though I felt my own eyes stinging over an animal I had only seen for a few second on television.
"Does that happen a lot in horse racing?"
"No, but more often than you might think." It struck me that I was opening a can of worms.
We paid. We left.
About five minutes later, one of the boys piped up. "Sometimes it is more polite to kill an animal when it is in pain."
"Polite isn't the word I would use, but you've got the right idea about what happened."
I left it at that.