02/17/2012 1:08PM

Hovdey: Colorless ruling lacks common sense

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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.

Al Peterson More than 1 year ago
In Montana the Native American horsemen put feathers in their racing Quarter Horses manes and a medicine man sometimes blesses them (don't know what else to call it) before they race. They're very serious about this and no one mocks them. I'd love to see what would happen if stewards tried to stop it.
Chyrece Ferry More than 1 year ago
This Hansen colt is the coolest looking horse I've seen in years...why dye him? Speaking of that, let us change the subject to all the most interesting horses we have seen live and in person. Remember Hap? A chestnut with a butterscotch tail and mane. What a looker! Saw Easy Goer up close at the Travers. Whoa. And, Unbridled's Song in the Citation out at Arlington. I think he finished last to Cigar, but he was simply breathtaking in the paddock pre-race.
Steve Hewlett More than 1 year ago
I'm with the New York stewards on this one. I realize that horse racing on one level is entertainment and certainly human entertainers adorn themselves with all kinds of questionable accoutrements and plastic surgery, but for me horse racing is sport and I find Dr. Hansen's request rather demeaning to the sport and to the horse. If Dr. Hansen wants to dye his hair, more power to him ... but leave the horse alone.
Kurt K More than 1 year ago
We don't need to make horses look like they are in the circus to attract new customers. We need clean facilities, clean races, and people that know how to market a product properly. I have been waiting 35 years for someone who knows what they are doing to take over the industry and put things on the right course. Football, baseball, basketball all have commissioners- why not horse racing? Those in charge now don't get it. There are increased purses now from slot machines- take some of that money and reinvest it in cleaning up the sport and hiring HORSEPLAYERS to be involved in marketing the product. Not these idiots that don't know the front end the horse from the back. Jay, well written article, very creative- this one goes to 11.
slug863 More than 1 year ago
To those criticizing... if he said he was going to dye it pink to partner with Komen to raise $ for breast cancer research you would probably say how great it was. There is no harm or advantage in the request.
Babette Cade More than 1 year ago
I would not.
Hasenji More than 1 year ago
I don't understand -- why did the owner have to ask permission from the stewards in the first place? I certainly wouldn't dye a beautiful white mane and tail in garish colors, but it's his horse, so it's his business -- as long as there are no logos involved that would conflict with whatever advertising/publicity contracts the NYRA might have, I don't see how it's any of the NYRA's business.
Robert Schewe More than 1 year ago
I'm guessing it's because a horse's registration lists identifying marks that are his natural colors? And he has to match his registration to race. (Even though such records are not always accurate with colors, according to a recent article in another publication.)
Kyle Stasierowski More than 1 year ago
Thank-god the NYRA stewards denied Dr. Hansen's request to dye his horse Hansen's mane and tail because I personally thought that it was ridiculous. Now hopefully the stewards at Churchill Downs will follow NYRA's lead and also denie Dr. Hansen's plan to dye his horse's mane and tail for the Kentucky Derby on May 5.
Lawrence Vaccarelli More than 1 year ago
seems to me that without the "owners" this game would be kaput ! who's to say what a owner wants to do with his own horse within reason ?......this sport needs to get into the new century fast...before it goes the way of the dinosaurs....we need NEW AND YOUNGER FANS....not the 50yr. old average horseplayer that we have.....and im one of them.......need to think outside the box.....what a wasted chance........
Del Donaker More than 1 year ago
I like the colorless ruling. There's no telling how competing horses are going to react. Horses spook easily. I would think a trainer is looking for any advantage. There's a lot of money involved.
Keith Strouhal More than 1 year ago
Dr. Hansen should never have asked , he shoulda just done it.
Keith Strouhal More than 1 year ago
EAT ME !! You are stupid , how many people did you ask about this before you formed this retarded view towards this subject ? Go ride your rainbow colored unicorn if you think the majority of people agree with you.
Christopher Lally More than 1 year ago
Hi Jay. I am so glad Keith Strouhal woke up this morning. I am even happier that he was paying attention in grade school and learned his abc's. had he ignored his lessons and just continued on as an ignorant ignoramus then I would have been deprived to this evenings favorite chuckle. I am laughing out loud with shadenfeudenous joy. As Bugs Bunny says, "What a maroon."