It was a big race day and it was festive, and when the eight horses came down the stretch in the True North Handicap, the seventh race on the card, the portion of the crowd that had backed Giant Ryan, a sturdy New York-bred sprinter, pushed forward and screamed as he lunged toward the lead with barely 200 yards remaining in the six-furlong race.
Giant Ryan is 6 years old, which is ancient these days for an active racehorse among top competition. He has earned nearly $700,000 in a career that peaked last October with a win in a Grade I stakes, the $350,000 Vosburgh Invitational over a muddy Belmont surface. Since then, he faded badly in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs in November and then was shipped all the way to Dubai for a $2 million race in which he wasn't a factor.
In all likelihood, Giant Ryan's days as a Grade I entrant were over, and the True North, a Grade II stakes, was more his place in the world, at least for the time being. When you lose your career in this game, they don't give you two weeks' notice.
Giant Ryan stepped forward, and in one of those steps on his delicate legs, his left front ankle locked and the two sesamoid bones at the rear of the ankle snapped. Jockey Willie Martinez felt the shudder at once and reined the horse. The screaming crowd, just yards away behind the outside rail, saw Giant Ryan take two more steps and then stumble to his knees and roll to his side as the other horses thundered past and Martinez jumped down lightly and as far away from the horse's thrashing legs as possible.
The boxy track ambulance got there quickly, and a black screen was erected to shield the crowd from what might have happened next. For that moment, and that alone, Giant Ryan was as lucky as it was possible to be. He allowed an inflatable splint to be placed on his left foreleg and was able to walk into the ambulance. The crowd, which was allowed to see that part, applauded Giant Ryan, and it probably included some of those who had lost money because the horse's racing days had not lasted another eighth of a mile.
Giant Ryan was transported to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square to see whether surgery could save his life. That is the same wonderful facility that cared for Barbaro after his Preakness Stakes breakdown, but Giant Ryan still will need a lot of luck to get through.
That is true of all thoroughbreds who balance their 1,000-pound frames on a suspension system more suited for a ballerina. The modern horse is bred for speed rather than stamina, and it is an accepted part of the game that many with the best bloodlines will not make it to the track or, once there, will not last very long.
We see it every year in the Triple Crown chase. Horses break down, or they develop physical issues that lead to their retirement. This season, I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but was scratched from the Belmont on Friday because the pace of racing and training left him with inflammation in his left foreleg that wouldn't go away.
It is too much on 3-year-olds that are little more than teenagers in terms of their development. They have to be trained hard as 2-year-olds and then raced hard early in their 3-year-old season to prepare them for the long distances of the Triple Crown races. Sometimes, it comes down to ego for the owners and the trainers to try for the Triple Crown, which hasn't been won since 1978.
Enduring the three races in the span of five weeks is one thing. Preparing to do it and trying to recover between the races is just as sapping.
At some point, the sport of horse racing has to make a change. Not because there will never be another Triple Crown winner. Some horse will beat the odds and get it done eventually. But because of all the horses that are sacrificed trying to find that one horse, and all the casual fans who are driven away because the stars of the sport are never more than supernovas that flash quickly and disappear, either into the breeding shed or the track ambulance.
As constituted for modern horses, the Triple Crown series is inhumane. It doesn't work. The races should be spaced out farther, or be a series for 4-year-olds that can better handle the grind - or something. And if racing would like to keep its stars on the track, then there should be some consideration of the limited use of artificial insemination in thoroughbred breeding, so that owners can bank real insurance against disaster.
As it is now, however, nothing makes sense, and what was once a preeminent sport in the United States continues to slip from the national consciousness. There are still the occasional roars on the occasional big days, but those echoes don't last, and the crowds that lean forward to take it all in often aren't happy with what takes place before their eyes.
Contact Bob Ford at email@example.com, read his blog at philly.com/postpatterns and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.