This is a rather long review of a book which is not old, or fiction or children's. It's a nonfiction book from 2013 about the origins of a racehorse rescue, CANTER, and the tragedy that led to its founding. The author's frankness about the guilt, lingering and permanent, over the choices she made with her horses and her family, makes for powerful reading.
Saving Baby: How One Woman’s Love For A Racehorse Led To Her Redemption
Jo Anne Normile and Lawrence Lindner
2013, St. Martin’s Press
In 1973, a young Jo Anne Normile fell in love with a racehorse. Secretariat did that to people. His stretch run in the Belmont Stakes still makes your breath catch. Roughly 20 years later, the adult Normile leases a pregnant Thoroughbred broodmare, exchanging the mare’s care during foaling for the right to the next breeding, which she plans to be to a Secretariat son. She doesn’t expect to fall in love with the foal, who is technically supposed to be delivered back to the mare’s owner once weaned. Then the foal is born.
At the sound of the whicker, the baby lifted its head, its ears flopped to the side. It then let out a whiny, although it was more like the honk of a Canadian goose, and that, combined with our relief, I think, made all of us laugh hard.
Normile delights in the foal, Baby, doing all the ground work that will make him calm, confident, easy to handle.
… I was determined that Baby was going to grow to adulthood strong not just in body but also in mind so that nothing would ever hurt him.
Inevitably, she and her husband decide to buy the colt. The owner agrees, but on condition they race him. Nervous but willing, they embark on a career as racehorse owners. First Baby and then Scarlett (their Secretariat filly, born of the second breeding), head off to trainers.
Normile finds the racing world fascinating, and quickly becomes very involved. She makes mistakes with trainers, picks up the lingo, and learns more than she’d like about abusive horsemen. Bad things happen, but never quite bad enough to discourage her completely. In some of the best passages, she and co-author Lindner show how the creeping sense of something wrong begins to live in the back of her mind. She rationalizes the injuries and questionable training practices, knowing that all competitive athletics requires risk of pain and harm. She worries about her horses, changing barns and trainers repeatedly until they get a trainer she trusts and a barn setup more natural than the average. She learns of ‘breakdowns’ and why a big truck regularly rumbles by on its way to the empty fields behind the track – it’s the company that picks up dead horses to take to the renderer.
The gruesome knowledge bothers her, but she feels safe in that Baby and Scarlett are so lovingly tended and sound; the breakdowns are, she thinks, mostly due to badly conditioned or lame horses being run with injuries. And their first, hard-won, win is intoxicating:
If I was hooked before, even with the sinister goings-on that I had seen at the track, I was addicted now… all the glamour of racing, of the Sport of Kings – it was something I was now truly part of.
And then it all changes. Baby breaks down in a race, a single step that torques his leg, shatters his tibia, destroys any hope of saving him. Normile ends up in those empty fields with her horse, crying and telling him she’s sorry, so sorry, that she failed him, and then has to step back for the vet to euthanize him.
Normile sets out to get the track, whose surface was being decried as dangerous before that fatal race, redone. In the process, she discovers the even more gruesome fate of racehorses who either break down without dying outright, or simply aren’t working out at racing. They’re sold for meat. Worse than that, the processing of horses for meat is brutal – they’re crammed into trucks without food, water or - when they’re injured – painkillers. The trucks are often designed for much shorter cattle, so the horses are cramped and bent over for the long ride to the slaughterhouse. The slaughter method is inexact, a bolt to the brain that often misses the agitated horse, and has to be repeated. Horrified at this new face of racing, so far removed from the glory of Secretariat’s career or the joy of watching Baby run, Normile launches a rescue for racehorses.
It’s useful at this point to remind yourself this was the 1990s. The nascent internet was the exclusive property of a few tech geeks and the military. The racing industry’s solution to slow or lame racehorses was still its dirty little secret, and secrets were much easier to keep. And animal rescue had not yet exploded. Normile's efforts are all the more impressive.
Normile’s rescue is eventually name Communication Alliance to Network Ex-Racehorses – CANTER. It begins in Normile’s home state of Michigan, but spins off regional organizations all over the U.S. Normile eventually steps away from CANTER to focus on her family, as her husband has severe health issues. She is now involved with another charity, Saving Baby Equine Chariy, whose mission is:
dedicated to protecting horses, ponies, mules, and donkeys from slaughter, abuse and neglect; promoting change through public awareness and education; rescuing these animals in emergency situations; and providing financial assistance to approved 501 (c) (3) organizations that rescue them from slaughter, abuse or neglect in order to help as many as possible.
A very polished, professional, well-executed book which hits very hard in the repeated passages about Normile's feelings of having failed her horses and how her attempts to make things right never quite do.
The book was originally self-published, got good reviews, and was picked up by St. Martin's and re-issued in hardcover. (Original paperback cover below)
Around 2008, I happily followed two CANTER Mid-Atlantic bloggers who were retraining racehorses for new homes. They were lovely blogs.