Hansen posted a three-length win in the $400,000 Gotham Stakes over the weekend, and in the process enhanced his credentials as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. He did it with a white tail. That’s not a surprise, because the rest of Hansen is almost white, too, but it might have been a different story if the colt’s owner had gotten his wish.
Dr. Kendall Hansen, the Gotham winner’s namesake, wanted to dye Hansen’s mane and tail blue, maybe with just a bit of yellow, for the race. The color scheme would match the owner’s silks and Hansen (the human) thought the idea would generate some positive buzz for Hansen (the horse). What it generated was controversy, with people coming down on both sides of the really-tacky-or-really-clever fence.
Hansen’s potentially psychedelic tail became a non-issue when New York Racing Association stewards gave the scheme an emphatic thumbs down. While they appreciated Dr. Hansen’s desire to promote his horse and to "draw attention to horse racing in a positive and fun light," the stewards were concerned with maintaining the "integrity of racing" and assuring the public that horse racing is a "serious business, with the horse’s safety and welfare paramount." The stewards also were worried that allowing Hansen to race with a blue tail would generate a flood of similar requests from other owners.
Appealing the stewards’ decision or challenging it in court might have been options, but Dr. Hansen let the issue drop. End of story for now, although Hansen's owner floated the notion that he might try the blue-tail gambit again somewhere down the road.
A legal challenge probably would have failed anyway. The stewards at a racetrack have broad authority and courts frequently give racing associations and private breed organizations a free pass when it comes to enforcing their own sometimes arcane rules.
A case in point: The saga of Sally Hemings.
The Name Game
A few years ago, Thoroughbred breeder Garrett Redmond had a filly he wanted to name Sally Hemings. It was a clever choice for a name, and a potentially troublesome one. The filly was out of a mare named Jefferson’s Secret, and the broodmare sire was Colonial Affair. For anyone who might be history challenged, Sally Hemings was the name of an African American slave owned by Thomas Jefferson. It’s generally accepted that Sally Hemings also was Jefferson’s mistress, and that she bore him several children.
The Jockey Club refused the name, on the grounds that naming a horse "Sally Hemings" would be "in poor taste" and might be "offensive to political, religious, and ethnic groups." The name also was rejected because using the name of a person who happens to be both "famous" and dead without approval from the Board of Stewards of The Jockey Club is a violation of the organization’s naming rules. (The ruling was an ironic one, coming from an organization that in another time had approved a batch of blatantly racist and clearly offensive names for Thoroughbred horses.)
The effect of the ruling was to make Redmond’s filly a pariah with little value as either a racehorse or a broodmare.
Redmond could have solved the problem by coming up with another name. (He did, eventually, and the filly raced under the name "Awaiting Justice.") Instead, he took The Jockey Club to federal district court, where he lost. He lost again in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel concluded:
"In short, because he has spent three years insisting that he has a constitutional right to name his horse ‘Sally Hemings’ and that no other name will do, Mr. Redmond now finds himself, like the songster of the '70s, having "been through the desert on a horse with no name." If he really wants to race or breed this horse in Kentucky, Mr. Redmond must come up with a name that complies with the Jockey Club’s rules. A quick look at the Jockey Club’s Registry confirms that "Horse With No Name" is no longer available."
Justice may be blind, but every now and then she has a sense of humor.
But what about a Derby winner with a blue mane and tail? Is racing too stodgy for its own good?