Jun 18th 2008 07:14 pm |
As Congress points its uninformed finger at thoroughbred racing this week, I thought it might be appropriate to take a look at the sad end to the aptly named Dark Secret. I revive the story for few reasons. From an historical perspective, their is nothing new about the uniquely tragic aspect of horse racing — even at the height of its popularity, horses broke down. It is a part of the game that will never be completely eliminated. To be a horse racing fan means justifying and accepting its darker side.
At its worst, outsiders view racing as a gaggle of wealthy owners, crooked trainers, and heartless gamblers who care nothing about the welfare of the animal. I would argue that, in the majority of cases, the exact opposite is true. One of the things that will be missed during the congressional proceedings is the fundamental connection that most racing people feel for racehorses.
Jimmy Breslin’s description of Dark Secret’s demise in his biography of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons encapsulates all that I love and hate about the great sport of kings. It captures the glory of the thoroughbred in competition as well the emotion and anger that stirs when a horse breaks down.
New York Times, Sept 17, 1933
A little background on Dark Secret: He was the son of 1925 Kentucky Derby winner Flying Ebony. In 1933, he won the Manhattan Handicap at a mile-and-half and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at two miles. After winning the Manhattan, the New York Times called Dark Secret “a menace to Equipoise’s supremacy in the handicap division.” (Equipoise was Horse of the Year in 1932 and 1933.) A few weeks later he beat Equipoise in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. In 1934, he won the Manhattan again and also repeated his win in the Gold Cup but broke down tragically after crossing the finish line. Here is how Jimmy Breslin described Dark Secret’s courageous final run:
“In 1934, when he was having trouble with Omaha, then a 2-year-old, Mr. Fitz [‘Sunny Jim’ Fitzsimmons] had a barn full of horses who could run. One was Faireno, owned by [William] Woodward, and the winner of the 1932 Belmont Stakes. The other was Dark Secret, owned by Mrs. [Gladys Mills] Phipps and Ogden Mills. Dark Secret was the outstanding distance horse in the country in 1934, and won 19 races in his career.
“On September 15, he took the track with Charley Kurtsinger on his back to run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, which is a two-mile race. There were only two other horses. One was Inlander, which didn’t seem to fit in, the other Faireno, whom Dark Secret had defeated in a race at Saratoga – the Saratoga Cup – a month earlier. The sky was black and a sheet of rain covered the track.
“There was a crowd of 25,000. The big event had been the Futurity, won by Chance Sun. Omaha had finished fourth. Everybody was writing about that when the three horses came up to the starting gate for the Gold Cup. The gate opened and the horses began running. It was a match race from the start. Kurtsinger got Dark Secret out first, Tommy Malley had Faireno right on him. Inlander was out of it from the first strides. The two horses ran evenly around the huge, sweeping mile-and-a-half Belmont Track, Dark Secret on the inside, Faireno, the outside.
“Mr. Fitz was in the grandstand at the head of the stretch, watching his two horses run. Dark Secret and Faireno settled down into a duel of legs and lungs and hearts. These were two thoroughbreds out to do exactly what they were born for, and there was to be no stopping. Dark Secret kept in front, now by a half length, now by a length as Faireno held on. At the top of the stretch they started to pick up the pace. Malley’s right arm began to go up and down as he whacked Faireno. The horse lowered his belly, as race people say, and came on. Alongside him, Dark Secret picked up. His stride lengthened and came faster.
“This was one hell of a race and the crowd started to pick it up. The roar started way up the track, when the people in the grandstand saw the two begin their charge. Then it rolled through the stands and now the whole of Belmont Park was roaring. The two horses came down the stretch, with Faireno’s nose now even with Dark Secret’s flank. Both had come nearly two miles, but they were running straight, and harder every step. Kurtsinger had his face buried in Dark Secret’s mane, his arms pumping forward with everything he had in his little body. He was trying to get home a winner and he was oblivious to everything else.
“But as they neared the wire Kurtsinger felt a lurch. Dark Secret had bowed a tendon in his right front leg. Dark Secret faltered. But only for a tiny piece of a second. So tiny only Mr. Fitz remembers seeing him do it. Then Dark Secret reached out with his injured right leg again and one thousand pounds of horse and Charley Kurtsinger’s 118 pounds and the saddle and the lead pads all came down on the torn ligaments. He swayed. He kept going. He was a race horse, he was racing. He was not going to stop until he was finished with what he was supposed to do. His feet slammed into the mud, his body strained, his head bucked up and down and he kept even with Faireno. He had the kind of pain you do not live with. But with yards to go Dark Secret kept charging while Faireno flew. He had to catch the crippled horse. But Dark Secret did not stop until he had his nose laid out so everybody could see he was the winner. Then he stopped. His right leg shattered directly under the finish line. Kurtsinger tumbled off, picked himself up and looked.
“Belmont Park was silent. The rain beat down on Dark Secret’s back as he hobbled in the mud. The rain dripped from his coat. But he was up. He was up straight, looking up the track. And his head was high, as high as a proud thoroughbred can hold it. He had won the race.”
The New York Times described the scene as follows:
“The joy of turf devotees over the get of a crack thoroughbred doing so well was stalled a few moments later when the Wheatley Stable’s [illegible] Dark Secret, broke his leg a stride after he crossed the line a victor in the Jockey Club Gold Cup Race for a second straight year….There was a gasp from the thousands watching as the famous son of Flying Ebony sprawled a split second after the finish. He steadied himself on three legs, and then pulled up, his right foreleg dangling at the fetlock”
“The got a van onto the track and a groom helped Dark Secret limp into it. Then they took him to a barn where the veterinarian could look at him. When Mr. Fitz got there, Ogden Mills and Mrs. Phipps were standing with the veterinarian and the man was leaning over and looking at Dark Secret’s leg. Grooms held the horse tightly so he wouldn’t rear and kick out in pain. Then the vet straightened up.
“‘The leg is completely smashed.’
“‘Can I do anything with him?’ Mr. Fitz asked.
“‘He’d suffer too much’ the vet said. ‘Gangrene would set in. You can’t help him at all.
“‘All right,’ Mr. Fitz said. The others nodded, too. There was nothing to talk about. The horse had run himself to death.
“The vet reached into his bag for a needle with which he would inject poison into Dark Secret’s blood stream. It would kill him immediately, Mr. Fitz didn’t even ask what it was. He asked the guy to wait for a minute. Then he started walking away. Mills called just a minute, to Mr. Fitz. He walked away, too.
“‘Me and him, we just walked away,’ Mr Fitz says. ‘I wasn’t going to look at that.’
“In the newspapers the next day, Dark Secret got a couple of paragraphs at the tail end of the stories about the Futurity, which was a very important race because there was a lot of money in it for the winner. Dark Secret’s victory was only worth $6500 and that didn’t make him very important at all.”
SOURCES, NOTES, AND OBSERVATIONS
For one of the most elegant pieces ever written about horse racing, read W.C. Heinz’s “Death of a Racehorse.” Check it out in its entirety at Steve Byk’s DerbyTrial.com
Breslin, Jimmy, Sunny Jim: The life of America’s most beloved horseman, James Fitzsimmons (1962) Doubleday & Company, Inc.
New York Times, September 16, 1934
New York Times, September 13, 1934
New York Times, September 17, 1933
New York Times, September 14, 1933
The above were accessed on microfilm at the Wilmington Public Library]
Thanks for reading!