BOOKS: The Evil Side of a Racetrack

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1995:

The Evil Side of a Racetrack
by Michael John Horak
Rainbow Books Inc. (POB 430, Highland City, FL 33846-0430), 1995. 515 pages, with photos. $30.00.

The Evil Side of a Racetrack is the autobiography of
Michael John Horak, a former harness racing owner, driver
and trainer, most heavily involved in the 1960s, when most
of his story takes place. But now, in 1995, the treatment of
racehorses hasn’t changed for the better. They are still
drugged and raced lame with alarming regularity.
Horak got into racing chiefly for the love of horses
and to be able to make a living with them. He tried to make a
difference by training his horses and those of clients in a cautious,
easy, drug-free manner. He did not believe in racing
an even slightly lame horse, no matter how well a drug
might mask the pain. He knew that drugs might work for a
while and perhaps a few more wins could be had, but in the
end the horse would break down in extreme pain.

Horak also did not believe in racing young colts;
though two-year-olds are routinely raced, a horse is not physically
mature until the age of three or four. Nor did Horak
believe in racing horses in extreme weather: “The temperature
was fifteen below zero with a wind-chill factor lowering
it to forty below. Incredible as it may seem, the harness
races went on as scheduled. I called the Humane Society to
refresh their memory of their purpose and to inform them that
if they would go to the track, they would find at least 500
cases of animal cruelty. There would be many horses unable
to get a drink of water because the pails were frozen blocks of
ice. I was simply told that my message was being recorded
and that the matter would receive top priority, then a polite,
‘Good-bye.’ No harness racing was ever cancelled the entire
long, cold winter, even though very few people attended.”
Horak writes a lot about the practice of “fixing”
races, stacking the odds, and insurance fraud––most notably
regarding the questions that remain to this day surrounding
the decision to have the great thoroughbred filly Ruffian
destroyed after she broke down in a 1973 match race: “The
most mysterious part of that complete incident was that
Ruffian was never insured until two weeks before that match
race.” Ruffian had broken down before that, so perhaps her
owners knew it was only a matter of time.
One thing that Horak does not mention is the
slaughter trade. Most racehorses are “retired” to the feedlot.
Only those successful enough to pass on their genes or who
have not been hopelessly used up and crippled escape that
fate. Horak also does not sufficiently explain why abuse takes
place. Greed is of course the motive; but he doesn’t really
lay out how the racing system practically forces owners to
race two-year-olds, by creating the most prestigious races for
horses in that age group. He doesn’t offer a strong enough
explanation as to why horses are raced in sub-zero temperatures––if
so few bettors attend, why go on? He does talk a
lot about the commonly administered drug Lasix, and offers
interesting insights into its use and misuse.
Horak’s reputation around the track was good with
the few honest owners and drivers, but to the majority, and
to many track officials, he was a busybody and a troublemaker.
Horak’s best horse, a colt he raised from a yearling
and trained himself, was Michael John, a bay standardbred.
Michael John was started late, at three, and always raced
without drugs. He never broke down, and won consistently.
Shortly after Horak refused to purposely lose a race with
Michael John, Michael John was attacked in his stall at
Washington Park Racetrack while Horak’s groom, Charlie,
was asleep. The guard dog, a Doberman, was found dead in
the stall. Horak writes that Michael John was tied up and he
could see “three or four one-inch welt marks across his back,
about a foot long. The same kind of marks were on his left
stifle,” a sensitive part of the hind leg which can be likened
to a person’s knee. “These lunatic losers must have waited
since my race, in the event that I might have suspected something
might happen after my winning. Then, I did relax my
guard. I still blame myself for that, but how long can a person
keep a 24-hour guard on his horse?” Michael John was
injured to the point of needing a lay-up to recover. He did
return to racing, but was retired soon after.
Kicked and beaten
Years later, in 1978, Horak went to a track in
Florida at the suggestion of a friend, to look at Ocala Star
Craft, a mare for sale. She was racing on the afternoon
Horak went to see her, and he immediately guessed she was
dead lame under a mask of drugs. Then: “I looked at the
tote board and to my surprise Ocala Star Craft was now the
overwhelming favorite. This was caused by someone putting
$500 to win on her the very second the board was open for
wagering.” The mare broke down in the race and was
removed by ambulance.
When Horak saw Ocala Star Craft, still lame,
entered in another race a couple of months later, he tried to
have her scratched, but “that was like looking for a needle in
a haystack––not one track official was around…I was completely
baffled and discouraged that I had failed.” He went
back to the infield to watch the race. “It was impossible to
believe that Ocala Star Craft was again the favorite with her
odds at even money. The racing program had her previous
races and dates listed in order, as with every other horse (in
the race). However, they failed to inform their readers that
she was taken off the track in Florida by a horse ambulance
because she was so lame she couldn’t even take one step to
walk into the van. She had to be lifted in by leather straps
with the use of a hoist.” As Horak feared, Ocala Star Craft
broke down as he watched. Six other horses fell, unable to
avoid the fallen mare and racing cart.
Horak followed Ocala Star Craft’s driver, Daryl
Busse, as he went to the paddock area after the disastrous
race and shouted at him, chastising him for his abuse of the
mare. Horak was later picked up by track security for his
“threatening, disruptive behaviour.” He was handcuffed,
then kicked and beaten. His elbow was severely injured.
Horak filed suit against the guards and track individually and
collectively, and eventually, years later, won a cash sum for
his pain and suffering. But his racing days were over, as his
elbow never did heal well enough for him to have the strength
to drive a racehorse.
Never afraid to name names, Horak does it without
making his memoirs sound like sour grapes. However, T h e
Evil Side of a Racetrack is sometimes bogged down with
insignificant details, like what he had for dinner, or what he
watched on television, and suffers from being short on horses
and long on legalities: 300 pages of verbatim court transcripts
is a bit much. The Evil Side of a Racetrack, though compelling,
would have benefited by cuts and perhaps collaboration
with a professional writer.
––Staci Layne Wilson

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