I'm not an animal lover, at least not in the sense that the term is used among the American middle class these days. I'm not an animal hater either--I've had pets and I love them, but I don't feel about animals the way many of my fellow citizens seem to these days. I've never paid a thousand-dollar vet bill. I've never stayed awake at night because my brother, the dairy farmer, sends his dry cows and bull calves to the slaughterhouse. Indeed, I've never been a vegetarian, even for a day. As I write this post, I am simmering a stew composed primarily of the cubed leg muscle of an adolescent sheep who met its untimely end just a few miles from where I live.
So I'm not an animal lover. But this morning, when I opened the Sunday paper and saw that Eight Belles, the filly who placed in these year's Kentucky Derby, had broken down at the finish line and been put down right there on the track, I teared up. I cried partly because thoroughbreds are beautiful animals who deserve better than to die for our amusement, but mostly I cried because I remembered the day, more than 30 years ago, when I mourned the death of a thoroughbred filly whom I had never even seen.
In 1975, Ruffian was the outstanding 3-year-old female race horse in the United States. She had won the Triple Crown for fillies and, in the era of second-wave feminism and Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King tennis matches, it was inevitable that somebody would decide that a buck was to me made by racing her against the year's outstanding colt, Foolish Pleasure, the winner of the Kentucky Derby.
The match race was held at Belmont Park on July 6, 1975. That summer, I was a 25-year-old law student doing a summer internship in Chicago and living near the lake. I remember driving through the green, elm-lined streets of Evanston, listening to the race on the radio. When Ruffian broke her leg a half mile into the race, I broke down bawling. I was crying so hard that I had to pull over to the side of Dempster Avenue, so that I didn't run my car into one of the beautiful old trees that were dying of Dutch Elm disease.
A few weeks later, I left my internship early to drive to California where my father was waiting for my arrival so that he could die. Maybe that's why I cried for Ruffian and maybe that's why I cried this morning for another horse whom I had never met.