Life, Death, and Words

In the summer of 1949, W. C. Heinz had an hour to sit at his typewriter and describe a harrowing race and its aftermath.  What he wrote in that hour, on that rainy day, bubbles to the front of my mind whenever I open up my laptop and start writing words about horses.  The dialogue, the images…what Heinz wrote in a heart-rending hour live on in a way that so many words conjured in a day, a weekend, a lifetime never will.


“Air Lift,” Jim Roach said. “Full brother of Assault.”

Those aren’t the first lines of W. C. Heinz’s “Death of a Racehorse”, but they’re the first lines that stick verbatim in my mind, setting the scene.  They encapsulate the hope of an impeccably-bred racehorse, the expectations that anyone with such breeding shoulders as he steps onto the racecourse.

Heinz uses a few more words after this, but these nine words are enough.  Assault won the Triple Crown in 1946.  Roach said all he needed to say to establish why Air Lift mattered to everyone there, and what everyone there expected.


‘”Gorman was crying like a baby,” one of them, coming out of the jockey room, said. “He said he must have stepped in a hole, but you should have seen him crying.”‘

When I first read this, I was little versed in horse racing, and little versed in horses.  I wondered.  Stepped in a hole?  I’ve stepped in a hole so many times.  Tripped, usually.  Fell, sometimes.  Gotten back up, always.

The more time I spent at the races, spent around horses…I learned.  “Stepped in a hole” went from a minor little bobble to a horrible thing that should never happen on a racetrack.  My previous thoughts seemed not only naive, but callous.  A human one leg short can deal…but a horse?

Dave Gorman knew.  Dr. Catlett, Max Hirsch, Robert Kleber knew.  Over fifty years later, anyone who followed the heroic measures taken to save Barbaro knew.  A thoroughbred needs four legs, and there’s no analogue to crutches or bed rest for a human.

He broke from the gate hoping to guide the next superstar to victory.  A hole, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, turned hope to tragedy.


“They had sponged off the colt, after they had given him the shot to deaden the pain, and now he stood, feeding quietly from some hay they had placed at his feet.”

More than any image in Heinz’s column about Air Lift’s final day, this lives with me.  It comes to mind whenever I think of this piece.  This picture clatters into my brain whenever I see a horse ambulance clatter onto a racetrack.

In the midst of catastrophic injury, impending death, the worst-case scenario coming true?  Air Lift’s people cared.  They cleaned him.  They did what they could to make him comfortable.  They gave him his last meal, some more hay.  Though they knew he would not need the hay to fuel him through another race, another workout, another hour of life, they figured it would bring him solace in his final moments.

I’ve never been in a horse ambulance, so I have no way to know.  But, every time I see it come out, I think of this, and I hope there’s a bale of hay in the corner.


W. C. Heinz had an hour to tell a story about a harrowing day at the track.  Nothing anyone did — not Heinz, not Dr. Catlett, not anyone — could bring Air Lift back.  But, in “Death of a Racehorse”, his words found life that courses on over six decades later.

Filed under: horse racing, ponderings

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