Once upon a time . . .
The horse that the son’s father bet on, the horse that led all the way down the backstretch, the horse that—when it won—was going to pay the mortgage for the month and leave a little left over for cotton candy and carnival rides, was fading back to the field.
Three lengths ahead.
Two lengths ahead.
One length ahead.
For the jockey and the owner and the bettors, like the son’s father, the finish line couldn’t come soon enough.
And as the race got tighter and tighter, the sound around the track got louder and louder. Not just from the hoofs pounding rhythmically into and out of the dirt, but from the fans screaming for this horse (and those juicy 12-to-1 odds) to hang on for… just… a … few… more… seconds.
The son was mesmerized. He gripped the rail of the grandstand and pushed himself up, like a gymnast mounting a pommel horse, to secure a better look. And then, as he strained to improve his vantage, he heard a sound he had never heard before in his life. Which was followed by another sound he had never before heard in his life.
And finally, a third.
Wait… Maybe we’d better start from the beginning.
On a summer afternoon so hot and humid it would make a chili pepper sweat, a father took his son to the county fair. And on this afternoon, this summer afternoon so cloudless and bright that it would make Stevie Wonder put on a second pair of sunglasses, the county fair the father and son were going to was hosting a day at the races.
Harness races, actually, where the jockey sits in kind of a wheelchair-looking contraption and gets tugged around the track. When the father saw it, it reminded him of the film Ben-Hur. When the boy, who was 11, saw it, it reminded him of the Chuck Wagon dog-food commercial that ran constantly during Saturday morning cartoons.
Their horse that day was No. 4. No, not because of Brett Favre (he’s old, but not that old), and no, not because of Bobby Orr (the family hated hockey); rather, the son’s father placed his Franklin on this particular equine because, when it stood on the infield before the race started—which it had, just 10 seconds ago—the dad had seen it, uh, take a… well, make a… uh, go to the… er, drop the kids off at… hey, you get the idea.
The rationale, if you must know, is that engaging in such an activity before the race started would theoretically make a horse lighter, and therefore faster.
The father wasn’t exactly what the books call a sharp handicapper.
But with 100 yards to go, he was looking like a regular Jimmy the Greek. No. 4 horse and its recently evacuated bowels were still in the lead. It seemed, unless something horrifying happened, it would cross the line first.
The first sound the son heard, as it turns out, was the sound of the third metacarpal, the longest bone in a horse’s body, shattering. The second sound was a 2,000-pound animal falling and shrieking in pain. And the third sound, the eeriest and most haunting one of all, was the sound of a thousand people making no sound at all.
It all happened so quickly. Two buggies bumped each other, gently enough, so it seemed, but it triggered a chain reaction that led to the jockey being ejected, catapult-style, onto the track, and No. 4 sent into an out-of-control cartwheel through the wooden guardrail at 25 miles an hour.
No. 4 tried to stand, and immediately collapsed back to the ground. It would never try again.
But the son could see the horse moving. Its nostrils knackered, and its ears flitted back and forth. Its belly expanded and contracted with each breath taken. The son, who was terrified at the thought of watching an animal die—he always left the room at the end of Old Yeller—was relieved, overjoyed that, albeit injured and probably unable to race again, would in fact live.
And then the father told the son the truth.
“They’re going to have to put that horse down, you know,” the father said.
The son, at first, didn’t get it. Put it down? It’s already down. They have to get it up.
Then the father, not as gently as you might expect, explained the trainers would “destroy” No. 4, shooting it to spare it the misery that was sure to follow. The father talked about blood circulation, and how the leg would never heal properly, and that in the end, killing it was the most humane action you could take.
But the son didn’t understand and he didn’t want to understand. Hold on, he protested. No. 4’s eyes worked, its ears worked, its mouth worked, its colon worked—damn, what do they feed these animals?—its three other legs worked. In fact, at the veterinarian’s office in town, there was a cat missing a leg. They called him Tripod.
If Tripod can live, why can’t No. 4?
The father held the son, until he finally accepted the reality he wanted so much to change.
Horses, it turns out, are like businesses. Every aspect must function, and function well, to survive. Sales, management, research and development, operations are all critical. If one breaks, it doesn’t matter how healthy the others are. The business has no choice but to die.