Commentary

Death of another racehorse

The method has changed, but racehorses are still being put down at an alarming rate

Updated: April 19, 2012, 4:11 PM ET
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

tkJakob SchillerMore than three hundred horses were put down in New Mexico alone in 2009.

This story appears in the April 30, 2012 NFL Draft issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

TELLER ALL GONE was not a horse of distinction until he was dead. In fact, he was so unexceptional when he was alive, the details of his biography remain hazy. According to the Lazy E Ranch in Guthrie, Okla., the farm where he was born, he was foaled on Feb. 12, 2009, from Algonquin, sired by Teller Cartel and registered with the American Quarter Horse Association as a sorrel gelding. But according to a video once posted online by the ranch, he might have been a she, a brown filly foaled from Check Her Twice.

Whatever his gender and dam, Teller All Gone definitely traveled as a yearling from Oklahoma to New Mexico, where he was auctioned at Ruidoso but passed through without a buyer. He went on to run three races at Ruidoso Downs last summer, placing second once, earning $1,570. Here, there is no debate. The money is always exact.

Also without doubt: On Sept. 3, 2011, in his fourth race, Teller All Gone broke one of his front legs and was put down on the track. A 31-year-old photographer from Albuquerque named Jakob Schiller was there, and he took pictures of the horse's demise. Track workers held up green and blue tarps to shield the horse from the crowd, or the crowd from the horse, but Schiller had a clear shot. In one particularly stark image, a track worker is kneeling on Teller All Gone's neck, his hand on the prone horse's shoulder. The horse has either just died or is about to die, via a syringe filled with pink liquid. The track worker is wearing a necklace with a cross on it; the cross is catching the light.

The New York Times recently ran that picture on its front page. It accompanied a massive story titled "Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys," an account of the rising toll that horse racing is taking on its participants. According to The Times, an average of 24 horses die each week at tracks across the country. Sometimes they are famous horses, like Eight Belles, who broke both front ankles after running the Kentucky Derby in 2008. More often they are stocky sprinters run for thin purses and crowds at struggling tracks. Because of lax regulation, financial pressure and rampant drug use on unfit animals, dead horses have been piling up, including at least 350 in New Mexico alone since 2009. One of those 350 horses was Teller All Gone.

After being put down, he was carted off behind a barn, where he was dumped on top of the dirt next to an old toilet and some surgical gloves. Schiller took photographs of the horse then too, and The Times ran one of those pictures across five columns inside. Just the front of the horse is visible, a glimpse of his face, his shoes muddy on his hooves, the dust only beginning to settle on his hide. Black clouds gather in the distance. Whatever Teller All Gone's mysterious life, it was now finished. This is how the horse's story ends, absolutely.

Except that Jakob Schiller took his pictures. "It was heartbreaking," he says today, "but I knew I had something important." There was already action unfolding: Days before, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had ordered an investigation into the recent deaths of 16 horses at Aqueduct in Queens. But after The Times ran Schiller's twin photographs of Teller All Gone, dying and dead, New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall began pushing for national legislation to protect horses and jockeys. A sport that was already wobbled is about to get staggered, in part because of a horse that was either a red boy or a chestnut girl.

In 1949, W.C. Heinz wrote a story called "Death of a Racehorse" for the New York Sun. It is a classic piece of sports journalism, an unflinching account of the shooting of a lame horse named Air Lift. It's so vivid, the reader can't help but feel as though he's standing there in the rain, the thunder rolling in the distance. All these years later, we can still watch Air Lift run the sixth race at Jamaica, break down and get shot in the head before our eyes.

Now we put up tarps. Now we use syringes filled with pink liquid. Yet there are certain facts about this racing life that will always remain concrete. Horses that run will sometimes break their legs and end up dead. But if the right person happens to be watching, those same dead horses will live forever.

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.

Chris Jones is a feature writer for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire.