The Measure of a Horse

5 minute read
Zoher Abdoolcarim

The conventional way to take the measure of an athlete is to concentrate on the numbers: Grand Slam or PGA titles, touchdown passes, new records. By that yardstick alone, a racehorse called Silent Witness was a winner many times over. Just retired, Silent Witness was unbeaten at his first 17 starts, eclipsing the 16-win streaks of past greats Ribot, Citation and Cigar. For three years running (2003 to 2005), the Paris-based International Federation of Horseracing Authorities ranked him the world’s fastest sprinter. And over five seasons of racing, he amassed $8 million in prize money. Yet those numbers, impressive as they are, don’t tell the whole story of Silent Witness’s rise to eminence.

You probably never saw Silent Witness race in the flesh, and may not have caught him on TV either. For his home was not the dirt tracks of the U.S. or the impossibly green paddocks of Britain and Ireland, but a splendid racing complex set amid skyscrapers in Hong Kong’s Sha Tin New Town. To the folk of Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, Silent Witness was a hero; to true followers of the turf, worldwide, a legend. Now, put to pasture, he deserves to be known for who he really was.

On Sunday, Silent Witness ran his last race at the Sha Tin course, the arena for all but one of his triumphs. There was to be no fairy-tale finish. After more than a year of assorted ailments and injuries during which he had gone winless, Silent Witness limped in ninth of 10 runners whom he would have pulverized in his prime. The bleak result didn’t diminish the ardor for the mahogany 7-year-old. Upon trotting back to the unsaddling yard, Silent Witness was given an emotional reception of cheers and tears. Railbirds, decked in owner Archie da Silva’s green and black, waved Silent Witness flags and posters. Da Silva, a hard-headed Hong Kong businessman, wept. Trainer Tony Cruz, a Catholic, described his charge to local reporters as “a gift from God.”

Why such devotion to an over-the-hill hack? This wasn’t a case of, say, a blue-blooded Barbaro coming to a poignant end at the apex of his career. Silent Witness inspired loyalty and fervor partly because he was a global champion. He repeatedly trounced many of the world’s best speedsters. For the Hong Kong Jockey Club, internationally renowned for its wealth and incomparable facilities but not, till recently, the quality of its thoroughbreds, Silent Witness showed the Club packed horsepower too. Though racing has played a central role in Hong Kong’s social and economic life since the British first colonized the barren rock, its citizens are not known for their sentimentality at the track. Yet attendance at Sha Tin would surge up to 50% whenever Silent Witness was on the card. His exploits even lifted Hong Kong’s morale when the city badly needed a boost. In 2003, the first year he was named the world’s top-ranked sprinter, the territory was reeling from sars, economic uncertainty and political tensions. Silent Witness gave Hong Kongers a sense of pride, and reminded them of their can-do spirit. He was Hong Kong’s Seabiscuit.

Like Seabiscuit, who lifted American hearts during the Great Depression, there was little in Silent Witness’s background to suggest he would one day be so dominant. Born in Australia, Silent Witness is the son of El Moxie, a middling U.S. sprinter, and Jade Tiara, a winner of minor Australian races. Because of his modest pedigree, Silent Witness was sold as a yearling to horse trader David Price for just $39,000. He was also gelded, a procedure in which a thoroughbred’s testicles are surgically removed. It’s commonly done to colts that have no stud value, or that get too frisky or, as with Silent Witness, bulky. “We didn’t know what we had,” says Price. “Now everyone wants his nuts.”

In Hong Kong, Silent Witness proved a thorough professional, and despite—or because of—that cruel cut, a perfect gentleman. He never threw a tantrum, and was so laid-back that Cruz called him lazy. Proffer a carrot and he wouldn’t crunch it like other horses, but nibble at it from your hand. His running style was as straightforward as his personality: bound out of the barrier, cruise to the lead or park just off it, gallop relentlessly to the line. “He had the reflexes of a springbok,” says South African Felix Coetzee, the only jockey to have ridden Silent Witness in a race. “The moment you gave him the signal to go, he jumped to it.”

The history of racing is replete with highly touted thoroughbreds whose pedigree and conformation were exquisite, yet who wound up duds. Instead, it comes down to a special, intangible quality—call it spirit or heart—that you can’t measure. Silent Witness had it. As a young colt, recalls his Australian breeder Ian Smith, he would “play up badly” if he were not the first fed or walked in the morning: “He dominated his paddock and was always the leader of the horses he ran with. There was something in his eye that said: Look, I’m good.” Not just good but, as those who saw Silent Witness will testify, simply and truly great.

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