11/14/2012 5:03PM

Hovdey: Horses put on quite a show

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Barbara D. Livingston
Animal Kingdom cut an impressive figure at his Breeders’ Cup appearance.

At one point during the Breeders’ Cup program of Friday, Nov. 2, the 8-year-old gray gelding known as California Flag pranced from the Santa Anita saddling barn after a schooling session geared to his appearance the following day in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Upon reaching the end of the path leading to the walking ring, California Flag planted his feet and jitterbugged backwards, then gave a great leap and bounded into the ring, dragging his nattily dressed trainer Brian Koriner along for the ride. The gathered crowd squealed with delight. Pleased with himself, California Flag raised his head, sniffed and walked calmly off stage.

A short while later, as the young ones gathered for the Juvenile Fillies, Alcibiades Stakes winner Spring in the Air went into her stiff-legged dressage routine, a prerace ritual that has found her dubbed “Little Zenyatta.” Given that the towering bronze statue of Zenyatta loomed not far away – not to mention the memory of how her trademark strut led to 19 wins in 20 starts – you’ve got to hand it to Spring in the Air. Kind of like the kid with the battered guitar asking Elvis, “Hey man, wanna hear Heartbreak Hotel?”

The next day, amid a parade of some of the most breathtaking Thoroughbreds ever collected in a single space, one of them stood out like a swan among barn swallows. Naked save his ring bit and bridle, his chestnut coat romancing the California sun, Animal Kingdom arrived for the Breeders’ Cup Mile as if he were the only horse on the planet. The mundane business of a pari-mutuel race seemed beneath him, but he rose to the occasion and beat them all except Wise Dan, then struck one last pose and went home.

These vivid images, buried as they were beneath a week’s worth of drab industry news, resurfaced Tuesday night in downtown San Diego, where the latest version of “Cavalia” is being presented beneath white-peaked bigtop tents in a car lot next to Petco Park, home of your fourth-place San Diego Padres. After watching 50 horses, 20 riders, and a dozen acrobats perform for nearly three hours on a massive stage – over which the Quarter Horses in the cast got up to nearly full speed during a vaulting version of an avant-garde Pony Express – I was left with the melancholy notion that horse racing asks so very little of what horses truly can do, and probably want to do.

The show begins with two horses entering stage right in eerie light and fake fog, ambling along for a few minutes simply sniffing at props and glancing at the audience. You wait for them to do something before realizing this is something, really something. There wasn’t a two-legged creature in sight and these guys were hitting their marks, taking their time and milking the crowd before exiting stage left. Horses.

There were no Thoroughbreds in the cast. But with a bit more maturity and a little special training, the flamboyant Spring in the Air would feel right at home off the rein alongside the Lusitanos in their rousing routines. California Flag, while not exactly a team player as a racehorse, could fit proudly with the chorus line of Pure Spanish Breed white geldings ridden by exotically costumed damsels. And whatever job Animal Kingdom wants, he could get, but the best presentation would be in a pas de deux, center stage, with equestrian choreographer Frederic Pignon. You’d never know who was directing who.

Cavalia, with its French Canadian roots, represents the highest form of man’s interaction with the horse. Plus music. A few miles away, in Balboa Park, the genesis of that interaction is on display in the Natural History Museum in the critically acclaimed exhibition “The Horse.”

The exhibition has been working its way across the continent for several years, since its debut at the Museum of Natural History in New York. While many will ooh and ahh at the replicated Chinese war horse or the large-scale photographs of cave paintings depicting horses from more than 33,000 years ago, I was transfixed by the horsey themes of dozens of ancient artifacts, including a weapon made from an antler whose tip was carved into the shape of a surging horse – with a very sharp nose.

My daughter, who at 7 has decided she wants to be a veterinarian, spent what seemed like an hour at an interactive wall displaying the skeletal structure and digestive system of a plain bay horse. The bones were cool, but she couldn’t get enough of the animated progress of hay from mouth through throat, stomach and intestines and . . . .

“Dad, watch this,” she insisted. A crowd of future vets about her size had gathered. “Watch the tail go up.”

Although it has been a national exhibition, the San Diego mounting of “The Horse” has a few local trimmings, including fossilized bones from dog-sized horses 35 to 40 million years ago found in the nearby wine country of Temecula.

Thoroughbreds and racing have a small but effective presence as well, courtesy largely of sponsorship participation by the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

There is a silhouette of Zenyatta against which anyone can pose, the obligatory stretch run of Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes – there have been other races – and a display explaining how synthetic racetracks have been found to reduce injury. As propaganda goes, this is fairly harmless but needs updating, since the explanatory graphic alongside the layered cutaway of materials notes that, “Today all major racetracks in California are required to use synthetic surfaces.” That mandate, in fact, is ancient history.

As if anyone needs an excuse to go to San Diego this time of year, “The Horse” will be on display until January of 2013, while Cavalia will offer performances through the holidays.