A Tragic Accident, Then One Woman’s Bold Fight to Make Horse Racing Safer

Jo Anne Normile discovered a dark side to Thoroughbred racing that most fans don't know about. What she did next would save thousands of horses.

Jo Anne holding horse
Courtesy Jo Anne Normile

I felt like I was on top of the world. My five-year-old Thoroughbred, Baby, was poised to win his first race of the season at the Detroit Race Course, where Seabiscuit and other illustrious horses had run. Baby let out a hello honk when I entered his shedrow that morning; his adorable whinny always made him sound more like a Canada goose than a horse. I breathed into his nose, as horses do with one another (no treats—he wasn’t allowed apples or carrots on race day), and brushed my nose and lips across his velvety muzzle. He seemed incredibly alert, right on the muscle. “Boy, he’s ready,” I said to Jerry, his assistant trainer.

My husband, John, and I walked with Baby, Jerry, and Pam, his trainer, to the saddling area. I told the jockey to come back safe and squeezed his hand. Then, while Pam was giving the jockey instructions—“You know what to do, stay just a bit off the leader”—I put my hand on Baby’s neck, moving it under his mane. “It’s OK, Baby. You be a big boy. We’ll be waiting for you. We love you.” I was speaking softly; you don’t want to be saying those intimate things loudly enough for everybody to hear.

I lingered a moment, after which Pam gave the jockey a leg up, and Baby was paraded in front of the grandstand while we all went to take our seats.

I did have some remnant of misgivings about the state of the track. A couple of weeks before, the chair of the track committee had said the racecourse was in bad shape. Two horses had broken down on opening weekend a month earlier and had to be euthanized. They might have run into a groove or dip. It wasn’t clear. But when I pressed the track’s top manager, he assured me that everything was in perfect shape, so I let it go.

It was May 25, Memorial Day weekend, 1996, and with the weather a cloudless 78 degrees, the stands were full. Our group alone had some 20 people, including my two daughters, my sister and brother-in-law, and our inner circle of friends.

A current of anticipation charged the grandstand as the announcer’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker, and the horses, after being paraded in front of the crowd with the jockeys on their backs, were led into the starting gate.

Baby didn’t start out leading the pack, but going along the backstretch, he slid into perfect position, with his head right off the flank of the first horse—exactly where Pam had said she wanted him. The rest of the field was a couple of lengths behind. John and I clasped hands.

The race goes by so fast, but in those moments of his approaching the turn, I could see our whole lives together: Baby’s birth on my farm five years earlier, when he’d almost died in my arms because the amniotic sac hadn’t opened and I’d ripped its tough, rubbery surface with my bare hands and fastened my mouth onto his nostrils to express air into his lungs; his first wobbly steps, taken before dawn, and then his galloping across the pasture just hours later; his tearing around like a giant puppy, followed by napping with his head on my lap among the dandelions or climbing the patio steps to the kitchen door to ask for a treat.

horses in barn
Courtesy Jo Anne Normile

About halfway through the race, it was clear that Baby would win. I could feel my heart beating, even as I was yelling as loudly as I could, “Yes! Yes! YES!” Everything was happening the way it was supposed to, and he hadn’t kicked into high gear yet; the jockey continued to hold him back. Even so, he was gaining, gaining. Then, suddenly, almost imperceptibly, he drifted slightly off to the right—and stopped. “Oh, my God,” I cried out. Pam had to hold me back from running down to the track. “His saddle probably slipped,” she said. But Baby just kept standing there, his jockey beside him, as the other horses crossed the finish line. Then I saw the horse ambulance come out.

“I’m here, Baby. It’s Mommy,” I said once I reached him in his shedrow. Covered in sweat so profuse that it had turned into foam that cascaded down his neck and chest, he was trembling all over. “It’s OK.” I knew I had to stay calm so he could stay calm, and his eyes, widened with fear, did relax some when he recognized me.

“Jo Anne, it’s really bad,” the track vet said. “His leg is broken.”

They can fix broken legs, I told myself. Years ago, maybe not. But equine medicine had improved.

“The tibia in his back left leg is in multiple pieces,” the vet was saying. “I can’t even count how many. It’s shattered. He can’t be saved.”

Baby had apparently stepped into a groove on the uneven track surface. “It was like an explosion,” his jockey blurted out, referring to the sound Baby’s leg had made as it smashed into fragments.

“Oh, Baby, oh, Baby.” I watched his face as the syringe went in when the vet administered euthanasia, shuddering as I wept, looking for some sign of forgiveness. But by then Baby had gone somewhere else. He sank to his knees, then rolled over on his side, in the position in which he loved to nap.

The days afterward are shrouded in a haze of sorrow, guilt, and misery. I can’t remember how I got home or who came and went, but at one point Pam brought a ziplock bag with a piece of Baby’s mane and one of his shoes, still grouted with sand from the spot on the track where he’d pulled up. I’ve never opened the bag, even to this day, but have always kept it with me—on the couch, at the kitchen table, on my nightstand. Eventually, it came to rest by my computer. I am looking at it now. Pieces of sand have fallen to the bottom.

I brought my other Thoroughbred racehorse, Scarlett, home from the track in short order. Scarlett had been born on my farm the year after Baby and had the same mother. On her father’s side, she was a granddaughter of the great Secretariat. Jerry thought she had a good chance of winning the $200,000 Sire Stakes, but I insisted she stay safe in my backyard with my other four horses.

I was right to take Scarlett home. An investigation conducted by a track expert determined that the soft top cushion of clay and sand, which was supposed to be about six inches deep, was sometimes as shallow as a quarter inch—much too shallow to protect a horse’s leg from the hard limestone beneath. And the limestone itself was a mess. In some spots, it came up like waves. In others, there were dips and gouges. No wonder horses were breaking down. After I hired a lawyer, the track was forced to make repairs and, in a protracted lawsuit, finally ended up having to pay me for my loss.

But track conditions weren’t the worst of it. In the wake of Baby’s death, I learned that most Thoroughbred racehorses aren’t gently put to sleep with chemical euthanasia if their bodies are beyond repair but rather sent in pain to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. They’re frequently killed even if they could have recovered. In fact, perfectly sound horses are killed because they’re no longer fast enough. Afterward, their remains are sent to countries where horse meat is sold in grocery stores. I also learned that during their racing careers, horses are often shot up with performance-enhancing drugs and painkillers, which only make their injuries worse as their well-muscled bodies are carried on spindly, damaged legs.

Over the years, I had seen some abuses on our low-level track but assumed they were anomalies. After Baby’s death, I learned that the problems were endemic, that the majestic steeds who galloped at breakneck speed for people’s entertainment were often treated like dice or decks of cards. When they were “used up”—even if they could live happy, pain-free lives away from the track—they were discarded, sold for pennies on the pound.

It made me realize that the Kentucky Derby and other high-level televised races are the smoke and mirrors obfuscating the truth of what goes on at the 100 or so racetracks around the country. Only one horse wins the big race. Many of the others drop into increasingly lower-level races until they meet a brutal, untimely end.

I could save Scarlett by bringing her home, but how was I going to save other horses? Not working to protect them would be like leaving Baby lying in the dirt. Every horse, utterly dependent on its owner, understands what it means to love and to feel loved. By working to save them, I could in some way save something of what I so loved about Baby.

Finally, a solution came to me. Thoroughbreds, magnificent animals, could be retrained for other disciplines when their racing days were over: dressage, eventing, show jumping. That’s what eventually happened with Scarlett. She was a magnificent jumper!

But I also knew that many Thoroughbreds were in too rough shape to participate in a sport discipline. That was OK. People would want these beautiful animals for trail riding or even just as pasture ornaments to feed and pet and watch grazing.

To get Thoroughbreds straight from the track to safe havens, I came up with CANTER (Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses). I found people who were willing to pay more for the former racehorses than the kill buyers lurking on the backstretch.

People at the track were suspicious of me. Some believed that I must have been getting a financial cut, which wasn’t true. Others were simply distrustful of a new idea and stuck to business as usual, selling to slaughterhouses even though they could have made significantly more money and saved the horses.

Still, I fought for as many animals as I could and found allies, donors, and volunteers. By 2005, we had rescued over 4,000 horses in half a dozen states, more than any other equine rescue group.

I was proud, but putting in 20-hour days at the track—after giving up my work as a court reporter—took a toll. I began having abdominal spasms coupled with ulcers, and my family was paying a price as well. The day I was supposed to help my daughter Jessica pick out her wedding dress, I was called to a track emergency and got to the bridal salon an hour late. On vacation, the phone rang 24-7, and I received more than 100 e-mails a day.

I knew it was time to turn over the reins so I could enjoy my family and the beautiful horses in my own backyard, including Scarlett, who was alive and well. But I also knew that I could never forget Baby.

Aware that more than 150,000 equines of all types are sent to slaughter every year, including wild horses captured on public land, I started Saving Baby Equine Charity, a smaller organization that allows me to have a more balanced life.

These days when I do my chores at the barn behind my house, I take pleasure in watching 22-year-old Scarlett amble over to the water trough. Grazing nearby is Marci, a wild burro I rescued. And right by my side, while I fill everyone’s pails with grain, rake the stalls, and remove dirt from their hooves, is Marci’s baby, Winnie. She loves to tear around the pasture to burn excess energy or go exploring, but mostly she likes to keep me company, nuzzling up against my body or looking for a brisk scratch behind the ears.

Eighteen years have passed since Baby died. My daughters have long ago worn their wedding gowns, and I have four grandchildren. Pat—Baby and Scarlett’s mother—passed peacefully in 2002. If not for that fateful day at the track, Baby might still be with us. He would brush alongside his companion Scarlett at the trough. The two horses would dunk their whole heads in the funny, unusual way they learned from their mother. But today, there’s no distinctive honk, no exuberant, stocky pet whom I took from his mother’s body and who loves to gallop toward me when I clap my hands. Some part of me will always be waiting.

Saving Baby, copyright © 2014 by Jo Anne Normile and Larry Lindner, is published by St. Martin’s Press. us.macmillan.com.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest