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What Happens When the Magic Circle is Pulled From Beneath Your Feet

Moments after a horse named Big Brown accomplished a feat in the Kentucky Derby that only a great horse could accomplish (win from the 20th and last gate), the runner-up Eight Belles — a competitive filly — fell to the ground as she was ridden out long past the finish line. Two broken ankles. Within moments, she was euthanized before Big Brown had even reached the winner’s circle.

I was at the betting window when I had heard the news. I had just watched the race in person and screamed for joy as I saw the filly cross the finish line to complete my exacta. Trying to beat the rush of fans collecting their winnings, I stood in line and watched a monitor for the results to become official. The man behind me seemed frustrated and disappointed about something — and those are very rare feelings for anyone standing in line to receive their winnings. He then told me that the filly had just been put down. I told him it couldn’t be, that she finished 2nd. I was sure of it. The gutsy little horse that I had promised all of my betting friends that “she’s so competitive, she’ll die trying to win this race” had just ended her short life. Suddenly I too was a little less giddy about my winning ticket.

As a self-appointed ambassador of the sport of horse racing and especially of the Kentucky Derby, many friends immediately looked to me to express their feelings, or lack thereof, after the race. What was an exciting, remarkable two minutes of everything great the sport has to offer was gone with Eight Belles’ demise. We had all just stepped outside that special ring of the magic circle reserved for fans and bettors of the sport… and it wasn’t exactly just “a step.” It was more like a plummet. Horse racing can be and often is a brutal sport. When a horse breaks down, the first thing personnel on the track do is to erect a curtain and try to protect the audience from the sight of a horse writhing in pain. Sedatives are immediately injected. A track physician makes a quick decision: can this horse be saved? If there’s even a remote chance, they’ll get the horse on it’s 3 good legs and have her move into the horse ambulance. But thoroughbreds are brittle, and with Eight Belles the decision was obvious: two broken legs that would never stabilize. Putting her out of her pain was the decent thing to do.

Yet in those seconds that passed from the end of the race to the those that found Eight Belles dropping to the dirt, an audience of millions found themselves contemplating the obvious question: is it worth it? And while considering it, no one was still inside the game of horse racing, no one was protected by the magic circle. We were tossed back into reality where things like death lurk. There cannot be many instances in games or sport where the real collides so dramatically with the pretend (for lack of a better word). My friend Dave wrote an email to describe the sensation: “hearing the track doc announce that she’d been euthanized so quickly after the race made for the kind of moment where your brain briefly shuts down – a manner of heartbreak i guess.”

There should be a word to describe the sensation Dave and I and millions of others felt yesterday. It’s not just about watching a horse die. It’s about being launched so quickly out of the game world and into the darkest reaches of outer space, or rather inner space: that part of our mind reserved for thoughts of mortality and the great void. For now I’ll have to settle for the only word that comes to mind that begins to describe how it feels: shitty. How odd that the horse who won the derby is named Big Brown.

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