02/17/2012 2:08PM

Hovdey: Colorless ruling lacks common sense

Barbara D. Livingston
Hansen will start in the Gotham without hair coloring.

News item of the day:

“Stating that ‘there is no sustaining merit to the request,’ New York stewards have denied Dr. Kendall Hansen permission to dye the mane and tail of his near-white champion colt Hansen for his appearance in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 3.”

Well, that’s a relief. What came immediately to mind – other than the reassuring fact that once again the barbarians had been turned back at the gates of Thoroughbred racing – was a seminal exchange from the cinema classic “This Is Spinal Tap” between a record company producer and the manager of the band on the subject of a controversial album cover:

“You put a greased, naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck and a leash, and a man’s arm extended out up to here holding onto the leash and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it. You don’t find that offensive?”

“Well you should have seen the cover they wanted. It wasn’t a glove, believe me.”

On race days, the mane and braided tail of the Hall of Fame gelding Ancient Title were decorated with purple and white pom-poms, coordinated with the colors of his owner’s silks. When Ancient Title was feeling especially frisky, his groom would decorate only the tail.

Quite by accident, the nearly white forelegs of the fabulous stretch-runner Vigors sometimes would bear a mustardy yellow stain from a soothing “paint” applied to his tender shins. This did not come to the attention of California’s reigning stewards at the time, or if it did, they didn’t bother.

Thoroughbreds, in case no one has noticed, aren’t really in on the joke of horse racing. The pomp and pageantry, the colorful highlights, the ceremonial fuss of the paddock, post parade and starting gate – these are all foreign to the nature of an animal who basically wakes up each day wondering if he’ll be eaten.

Horses are also limited in their recognition of colors, their vision registering only the blues and greens of the spectrum. They rely more on contrast than hue for their signals, which is why white horses, like Hansen, tend to stand out from the herd.

As with most petty tyrannies, the New York stewards deployed a raft of laughable justifications for telling Dr. Hansen to holster his hair dye. There was the slippery slope dodge (“we would expect similar requests from other owners”). They played the integrity of racing card (“the general public must . . . be assured that racing is a serious business”). They even added what can only be interpreted as a bizarre warning that coloration might be a hop, as in “any newly approved equipment item or practice . . . must not provide an unfair advantage.”

Finally, in denying an owner’s request to tint certain parts of his horse in the name of, I suppose, pride and joy, New York’s stewards feared the act would “suggest exploitation of the horse to the public.” I will let that statement fall gently to earth, allowing readers all the time they need to accommodate the full dimensions of that particular hypocrisy.

When Hansen went postward in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November at Churchill Downs, he was wearing a white (some would say nontraditional) bridle and a set of Mike Maker’s white blinkers with black trim and logo. His jockey, Ramon Dominguez, wore Dr. Hansen’s blue and yellow silks with diamond patterned sleeves and a graphic logo front and back. His color-coded Breeders’ Cup saddle towel was green, as opposed to the one Hansen wore in his previous start, the Kentucky Cup Juvenile, which was pink, or in his maiden win, when he wore classic black.

By all known traditions, decorated horses are not being demeaned. In fact, they are being celebrated. From the cave paintings of Altamira to the carousel ponies on the boardwalk of the Santa Monica pier, the evidence is bountiful.

Jockeys have settled into the saddle confronted by all manner of talismans decorating the mane. Feathers, twigs and bells, baubles, bangles, beads – you name it and some groom or some owner has paid sincere homage to their horse, about to put its life on the line, with a token of honor and worship.

On the day after the magnificent victory of Susan’s Girl in 1972 Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park, trainer John Russell received a call from Daily Racing Form ’s respected columnist Charles Hatton, who was nearing the end of his career. Hatton’s request was simple: Would Russell mind giving him the red ribbon Susan’s Girl wore in her forelock the day before, as a memento of the greatest performance he’d seen by a mare since the days of Gallorette?

“I didn’t have the heart to tell him is was just a rubber band, and had been tossed out,” Russell once recalled. “So I found a piece of red satin and presented it to him. He was very pleased.”

In days of yore, Native American warriors adorned their ponies with symbolic images before going into battle. Scars earned in battle were painted in red. Hoofprints drawn on the pony represented enemy horses captured. An Apache warrior dying in battle would pat the neck of his horse with a bloody hand to convey the bad news back home, while the left hand drawn on a horse’s right hip declared the horse had brought his owner home safely.

Go ahead, tell me that’s not treating a horse as anything less than serious business.