Thunder Snow: Intelligent. Thinking. Bettors’ Nightmare. Man of Action.
In 2006, I met Racing Hall of Fame Trainer, LeRoy Jolley. Almost immediately after our first hellos, I transitioned from being a big-time fan of the brilliant man–into a rabid apostle of the guru. It’s pretty safe to say that, by this time 11 years later–LeRoy Jolley has forgotten more about horse racing than most people learn or know in a lifetime.
One of the things he said to me that first summer sounded deceptively simple: hand-walking a horse with just a lead rope, Mr. Jolley looked at me, grinned and noted, “They LET us do this.”
After the hot walk, he expanded on that brief statement: that race horses (the Thoroughbred kind) tend to weigh in at approximately 1,200 pounds–that is, twelve-hundred pounds of flesh, muscle and organs. Add to that the untouchables: grit, tenacity, heart, soul, sheer will–and you’ve got a formidable, gigantic animal. An animal who, were it not for his role in the Universe as Prey Animal–would be a frightening predator, indeed. One kick from one of those hooves can crack a human skull; break a sternum or split the back of the largest, strongest human being.
(Imagine being a bunny, being chased down as food, by a determined, angrily neighing, starving 1,200-pound horse? Or the surprise of that crocodile in the most-recent viral video–the roles reversed for a moment, as a predator (croc) was stomped by a horse who knew that the croc could be dangerous--and decided to land the first blow?)
Mr. Jolley knew that a prey animal (horse) easily can learn how to trust a predator animal (human)–IF the predator puts aside his/her tendencies toward hunting, misdirected rage and violence. (The trust that we hope all trainers can instill in every one of their innocent equids’ hearts–and be worthy of that trust.)
And Mr. Jolley should know: (among many other achievements) — he trained two Kentucky Derby winners: the striking Foolish Pleasure in 1975, then his beautiful f!lly, Genuine Risk, in 1980.
Horses are thinking beings–-not 1,200-pound machines who are programmed to do as they’re told. Too many people these days–from owners to media professionals and racing officials–use the pronoun, “it” when speaking about a horse, rather than using the correct personals: her/hers/she, him/his/he (It’s easy to diminish another sentient being, if you’re uneducated or just-plain ignorant. It makes me cringe when I read something by a non-horse person who’s “covering” a horse race for a media outlet–and that person refers to a horse as, “it.” That’s the first sign that the commentator or writer is an outsider.)
So we flash forward to The First Saturday in May, 2017: Godolphin Racing’s beautiful Thunder Snow (a wildly-accomplished horse, winner of the UAE Derby and 2000 Guineas) was entered for the Kentucky Derby. He’s gorgeous, he’s brilliant, he was made by- and belongs to- My Hero, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Loves me some Thunder Snow. (Obviously, he was in my Derby exacta and tri.) He entered stall #2 with little concern. (Great position in a field of 20: near the rail, yet not ON the rail. All the others would have to crush over in record time to close the distance between their positions and Thunder Snow’s.)
The gate opened, as 160,000+ people screamed their guts out.
The field burst out, getting a grip on the mud and charging forward.
Then everyone noticed–that Thunder Snow wasn’t with the pack.
At first glance, we assumed that he was injured. (This writer, for one, was worried sick about him.)
But quickly, we went to WAIT-WHAT?, for Thunder Snow was bucking and dancing. Like a rodeo bronco, he was doing his level best to buck his jockey, Christophe Soumillon, off his back and into the infield.
The Internet went wild: every social media outlet was hot with rabid speculation: was he sick? Did he break a leg, tear a tendon?
The usual theory conspiracists — those people who either know nothing about horses and racing, OR who know just enough to throw out idiotic accusations every chance they get– started in. “They don’t treat that horse right!” or “They don’t understand that horse!” etc. (As we’ve seen too-often in the last year–empty kettles DO make the most noise.)
As it turned out–of course, Thunder Snow had not been mistreated, in any way. Duh.
And he wasn’t sick, injured or otherwise impaired.
He just-plain didn’t want to run.
Whether he hated the mud–on which he had raced in the past–we can’t know. Mud was not a new concept to him.
It doesn’t matter why he didn’t want to race that day. What matters is that he was physically fine. That Sheikh Mohammed got back a sound horse in his barn. And, actually, probably mentally well, also. This is pure speculation here, but I’m thinking that Thunder Snow was not pitching a fit–having a psychotic break–or otherwise, emotionally broken on Saturday. My thought is that, purely and simply, he had but one way to show Soumillon that, nope, NOT TODAY.
That one way was to buck and dance around, and clearly–NOT run fast, turn left.
Nope, nope, not today. Just not in the mood. I hate that guy next to me. I don’t like the hay here. I just feel like asserting myself.
Whatever it was–he thought about it, and came to the conclusion that–however he had to behave, in order to let his jock know–he would NOT be running with that crowd in an oval, on that day.
He thought about it.
Those are not anthropomorphisms, those are observable facts.
I saw it several years ago, close-up at Saratoga.
Carol and I stood behind the gate, just outside the white fencing. What we saw made us laugh, and note that, yep, horses think.
A 7f race, with seven horses in the gate.
Well, that #6 just did not want to be there! Once six was in his stall, he tried to rear up–he hemmed, and hawed. Finally, he just sat down in the stall.
Of course, the colt was taken out, and walked back to his barn.
His barn–where he’d still get a hotwalk, a nice bath, supper and a nap. And all, without having to run seven furlongs. Sa-weet.
Well, all during this drama, the #7 horse–a lovely gray–stood stock-still, perfectly well-behaved, in his gate stall.
He turned his head slightly to the left–he was very interested in hearing what his gatemate had to say. He watched, he listened, he observed closely.
He saw #6 taken out, and walked back to his barn for a restful evening.
We discussed among ourselves, that #7 was thinking about getting all the bennies of racing, without all the sweat equity.
Our observation of #7’s thoughts were accurate, for mere moments after #6 was led away, and nanoseconds before “OK, Boss!” could be called out–that tricky #7 SAT DOWN in his gate stall.
Boom. Mic drop. Back to the barn, Boss! Thence–a restful, full-stomached and relaxing evening at Home.
Horses think. #7’s thoughts were so obvious that we mere humans could hear them from behind the gate.
And Thunder Snow–he thought on May 6, 2017 at Churchill Downs. He thought, then he made a decision, based on those thoughts.
If anything, he showed by his bucking-bronco actions that he is his own man—a horse of tremendous energy, brilliant intellectual capacity and self-willed authority. Indeed, I believe, that Thunder Snow is going to continue to demonstrate that he can achieve even-more than he did prior to Kentucky Derby Day. (And he’s very accomplished, to the tune of $1.6 milUSDm so far.)
Don’t ever allow yourselves the human-centric indulgence of believing that horses are incapable of thought, or of making decisions. (If anything, prey animals must think far-more accurately, spontaneously and often than predators, who act by pure instinct for survival.)
To believe that horses don’t think is both silly and dangerous, for one day you may come up against a horse like Thunder Snow. And that horse may think about you, then decide that you should be kicked in the head for underestimating him. Self-aggrandizing human-centricism? Good luck with that, you’re gonna need it.
LeRoy Jolley and Genuine Risk, 1980 by BloodHorse.com
Genuine Risk, by Sports Illustrated
Thunder Snow, by Dubai Racing Club/Andrew Watkins