In 1973, a familiar thoroughbred horse named Secretariat, encumbered by a 126-pound jockey, ran 1 1/2 miles on a dirt track to win the Belmont Stakes in 2:24.00. Earlier that year, he had won the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby in 1:59.4. Those remain records for these events, and coupled to Secretariat’s victory at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, made him the first U. S. Triple Crown winner in 25 years. (There have only been two since–Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978; there have been only eleven Triple Crown winners in all.)
Secretariat’s Derby record works out to an average of 37.6 miles per hour, and his even better run at Belmont Park has him at 37.5 for a longer distance. Seemingly, these racehorses, often doped to the gills (OK, they don’t have gills, but bear the metaphor) would kick the shit out of any wild horse if forced to cover large amounts of ground, right?
Wrong. Or so I think.
Welcome the North American feral mustang. These roaming and self-sufficient animals, introduced to what is now the U.S. by the Spanish Conquistadores, have been beleaguered, dwindling in population from a high of two million in 1900 to 33,000 or so today (most of them inhabiting the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia). They used to be routinely poisoned and slaughtered from airplanes, mostly for food. Thanks to a 1971 act of U.S. Congress, this is not permissible anymore, and if you fuck with at least this form of free-roaming wildlife, you risk a stint in federal prison.
My (admittedly limited, at this point) understanding of these horses is that they can survive anything. They can cover huge amounts of territory at once and take care of each other. I’ve seen mustangs in action, when I was out West myself a few years back and doing some runs in canyon land. You want to talk about strength and grace? Watch a mustang in full flight. They go and go…
My point here is musing about what would happen if you pinned a trained racehorse against a wild ‘stang in a race at some intermediate distance–say, five miles. This would take at most 11 minutes for the winner, I am guessing. I’m sure the typical reader’s instinct would be “sure the racehorse would win.” But I wouldn’t count on it. From a physiological standpoint, we’re talking about a two-mile race between 800-meter world-record-holder Wilson Kipketer (who has the sweetest stride I’ve ever seen in a human being) and Kenenisa Bekele (the owner of the fastest-ever 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters). It doesn’t take a track scholar to figure out who would win that one.
Still, I may be making a few too many assumptions about mustangs. I doubt it, though. I’d be interested to hear from people who actually know something about the racing milieu and horses in general, since I don’t. And don’t even get me started on the sordid dog-racing industry, which I would abolish in a flash if I had the power to do so.