For Love or Money?

Was it for love, or money? H.L. Mencken wrote that when someone says "it's not about the money," it is about the money. This cynicism is more clever than true. For most of us, most of the time, it's about both. It has to be.

Let's be honest, most horses with a shattered pastern and contralateral laminitis do not get the treatment Barbaro is getting. When I asked a veterinarian what the bill would be, he answered with hard-nosed veterinary pragmatism: "About half the price for one breeding." Even with an iffy prognosis, that's a financial gamble that many would take.

But watch Edgar Prado; listen to the tremor in Roy Jackson's voice; witness the ghostly visage of Gary Stevens. No one would say that they were thinking about money when Barbaro came up lame.

They were thinking of his dominating spirit, but fragile legs; his competitiveness and how that instinct to run now threatened his life. They were thinking of his pain, his fear, his confusion, and the dignity of his death. The novelist Jane Smiley wrote that you have to make the decision whether to do colic surgery on a racehorse before the horse colicks, and the faces of the Barbaro people showed why.

My wife and I have lived the love/money dichotomy ever since we took a Thoroughbred home three years ago.

Feisty, by Acaroid, out of Some One Finer, was a broodmare. When Feisty twice failed to settle, her future was uncertain, but by luck she came to the University of Arkansas' equine program. She was underweight, her feet were a mess, and she had a hunter's bump as big as your fist.

My wife, Pk Ellis, an Equine Touch Practitioner, was called in to help, and Feisty was nursed back to health. At the university's auction, she was a tenderfooted beauty. We outbid the others and brought her home, saved from a fate that we'd rather not contemplate. At our place, she has a new name more respectful of her maturity (Abidjan), a pasture to run in, a younger gelding to push around, and a lead mare to do the same to her. She seems content, and that contentment is the return on our investment.

Feisty never raced, but her son, Feisty Vick, by Vicksburg, won over $100,000. When we tracked him down he was a 7-year-old gelding running in $17,000 claiming races at Philadelphia Park. A gelding claimer running at seven is a good description of a horse at career's end, so we had one of those love/money decisions: should we claim Vick and give him the retirement that he had earned?

But $17,000 is a lot of money, and, just as surely as Vick was ready to retire, there were many horses closer to Arkansas than Philadelphia who needed retirement to save them from slaughter. We could probably buy ten of these gallant plodders for $17,000.

What to do? While we were deciding, Feisty Vick disappeared from view. Calls to his trainer went unreturned. Web searches for his owner came up empty. stopped reporting his efforts. We lost sight of him until, some months later, Google turned up his death notice: Vick had blown an aneurism while steeplechasing in Virginia and had died on the track. We were too late. Is it for love, or money? We could never make the numbers work, but Vick was our girl's boy, and our hearts told us we should have done it.

Barbaro, Abidjan, and Feisty Vick. A Derby winner, a broodmare of undistinguished progeny, and a tired, old claimer. These are not three descriptions often linked together in The Horse. But they show that the owners of retired racehorses do not live sad, cynical lives. Here, it is about love and respect and dignity-- tempered, naturally, by the financial realities of our lives.

We who give the retirees homes attend winners' circles less spirited than those seen on TV, but they are places with their own special rewards. We do not pursue purses, profit, or glory; the Triple Crown is not our dream. We take the old runners and their dams, we tend to their wounds, we honor their careers. We teach them new manners and skills. And, when the time comes, we bury them. As long as there are racers sent to slaughter, or run into the ground, or left neglected in a dry lot, there will be money that needs to be spent and people needed to take the retirees in. Interested? Rewards await.

Robert Laurence is a Professor of Law and Animal Science at the University of Arkansas. His wife, Pk Ellis, runs ravenrock ranch, a small horse operation providing equine body work ( Feisty Connie, a filly by Connecticut, raced four times and then vanished, her fate unknown. If you know of her whereabouts, contact Robert Laurence,

About the Author

Robert Laurence

Robert Laurence retired from his position as a professor of Law and Animal Science at the University of Arkansas. He and his wife, Pk Ellis, run Ravenrock Ranch, a small horse retirement operation in Hindsville, Ark.

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