01/15/2012 12:50PM

Special Task


No one asked me if I was okay with acknowledging the accomplishments of the claiming horse Rapid Redux with a special Eclipse Award, to be presented on Monday night in Beverly Hills. So sure, why not. A season of 19 wins at any level without a defeat (now 22 straight over three seasons) deserves a nod, and this is a pretty big one, seeing as the 6-year-old son of Pleasantly Perfect takes his place on a list of Special Eclipse Award winners that includes Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Sheikh Mohammed, C.V. Whitney and Richard Duchossois.

To stop at those hallowed names would seem to characterize the Special Award as exclusionary, suggesting Mount Rushmore, but it's not. The Racing Form's talented cartoonist, Pierre Bellocq, was honored. So was the Keeneland Library, repository of so much racing history, as well as Russell Baze, for his habit of winning 400 races in Northern California year after year, and both Jack Landry -- "the Marlboro Man" -- and Anheuser Busch for pushing great piles of money into the sport.

More recently, the Special Award has taken on a tone of advocacy, tweaking at the conscience of the Thoroughbred industry. Cash Is King Stable, the folks behind champion Afleet Alex, were cited for their charitable work as both inspired and perpetuated by the horse. Roy and Gretchen Jackson shared the Special Award with the good people at the New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania, not only for their brave attempts to save the severely injured Barbaro but also for the veterinary insights his struggle may have nurtured.

A Special Award went to the Kentucky Horse Park for being such a cool place, a hands-on equine Disneyland with a Hall of Champions that through the years has included Forego, John Henry, Cigar, Alysheba and Da Hoss, in the flesh, no animatronics required. The American Association of Equine Practitioners got a Special Award nod, presumably on the most general of altruistic principles, since their membership spreads across many breeds and on occasion adopts positions not entirely in sync with the Thoroughbred world.

At the dinner in Beverly Hills in January of 2010, the Special Award went to Monique Koehler, whose work as the driving force behind the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation helped inspire countless similar efforts throughout the Thoroughbred culture. Her words that night echoed the challenge thrown down nine years earlier on a New Orleans Eclipse Award stage by John Hettinger, avatar to those most deeply concerned with the fate of racehorses beyond their usefulness on the track.

That the prospect legal horse slaughter is once again raising its barbaric head in certain regions of the United States should be a crushing embarrassment to anyone who has anything at all to do with Thoroughbred racing and breeding. That a comprehensive law to ban the sale or transport of horses for slaughter continues to languish in Congress is stark testimony to the sober reality that people can not, in fact, be shamed into doing the right thing. And so it will take constant pressure, phone calls from high places, well-placed funds and fifty percent plus one (or 60 votes when and if it gets to the noxious U.S. Senate) to get the job done once and for all.

Can Rapid Redux help? You bet he can. John Hettinger, likewise honored with a Special Eclipse Award, died in 2008. His work was far from done, but at least the hook was set. If his people are so moved, Rapid Redux -- the working man's hero -- could pick up the banner and lead the charge all the way to an American promised land for Thoroughbreds that is not only free from the horrors of slaughter, but also one that gives their owners humane alternatives -- free vet exams and euthanasia when warranted, well-funded retirement and retraining facilities -- backed and bonded by the same money that brings these amazing animals into the world and markets them for pleasure and profit.

Robert Cole, the owner of Rapid Redux and many more horses besides, has indicated he would like to see his stable star retired somewhere the public can come to pay tribute, while at the same time further the cause of safe and humane retirement of others not nearly as well known. Good for him. It's one thing for people in formal attire to stand up and applaud for a horse so honest he wins 19 races in a year without a defeat -- as will happen on Monday night in Beverly Hills. It's quite another to do the same in spirit for a horse who's run 22 times and lost his share, but still comes back for more. Special Eclipse Awards are nice, but all any horse asks for is a kind hand and a bit of pasture grass at the end of the line.