Friday Flicks: ‘On the Muscle: Portrait of a Thoroughbred Racing Stable’

Ever wonder what goes on behind closed barn doors? Our film critic Amanda Ronan finds out.

From Amanda:

On the Muscle: A Year Inside a Thoroughbred Racing Stable, a three-part documentary created by Pony Highway Productions, gives us an in-depth look ins Why Doesnt My Ex Txt Me Back When I Say Im Not Gonna Contact Him Anymore ide Richard Mandella’s training barn during the 2002 race season.

The series focused mainly on six horses: Reddatore, Brisquette, Ile de France, Kudos, The Tin Man, and Pleasantly Perfect.  First off, let’s talk the horse’s extensive veterinary care…

Reddatore and his hoof ailments are the focus of most of the first hour.  We are told that ‘Red’ began shedding his frogs shortly before filming began.  Mandella trimmed away as much as he could and he seemed sound enough to run in San Antonio.  Red wins the race, but is left with a bloody hoof caused by the half-shed frog completely ripping off on the track.

Now, I’m not a certified farrier by any means, but holey rusted metal Batman!  That does NOT look like a healthy hoof!

Red is given several weeks layup and then is switched to turf racing.  He has several other mystery ailments, including a few days bout with a 103.3 degree fever before he is given another long layup.

Next we meet Brisquette, a filly.  She runs well, but suffers from a very acute splint.  She is rushed into surgery where we are given a very detailed look at the fracture repair.

She is prescribed 90 days of rest and then is sent to a California rehabilitation center to work on a water treadmill.

Ile de France, another filly, is also sent to the water treadmill.  Her problems aren’t physical, however, but mental.  She suffers from claustrophobia in the gate.  They give her several sessions in the water treadmill until she learns to remain calm in cramped quarters.

Kudos, after winning the Oaklawn Handicap coming from behind to finish by 3 ½ lengths, goes into surgery shortly thereafter to remove a bone chip in his ankle.  Again the surgery was covered in detail, even giving us a view within the joint as the bone chip was sucked out.

The Tin Man, after jockey Mike Smith remarks he feels “off,” goes in for a nuclear scan.  Bone seeking radiopharmaceuticals are injected and then a picture is taken with a gamma camera, producing a ‘physiological’ image of what’s going on compared to an ‘anatomical’ view like an X-ray.  He’s given a clean bill of health.

And these were only the MAJOR veterinary procedures done to these horses!  There were countless injections, scope procedures, intravenous fluids… the list could go on and on… all performed by DVM Rick Arthur.  All of this was fascinating to watch but at the same time difficult.  My stomach couldn’t help but cringe while watching so much being done to horses that are so young.

Another interesting topic was the quick look at Mandella’s breeding operations in Versailles, Kentucky.  Mandella literally begins inspecting most of the Thoroughbreds he trains as young as a day old.  Actually, some cuts are made even earlier than that.  After viewing an ultrasound of twins, the decision is made to quickly abort one of the fetuses, a strategy that gives the remaining fetus the best chance of survival.

Mandella’s life is all about quick decisions and long-term strategies.  He deals with jockeys, agents of jockeys, owners, agents of owners, journalists, vets, exercise riders, horse transporters, veterinarians, layup barns, and more via his cell phone which seemed perpetually strapped to his ear.  In contrast, it seemed he spent only seconds speaking to the jockeys on race days, making small, light-hearted comments like “make two lefts” or “do what seems right.”

But maybe he doesn’t have to discuss much with his jockeys considering he works with racing greats like Mike Smith, Alex Solis, and the incomparable Julie Krone.  Snippets of the jockeys daily life in training were seen throughout the documentary, such as Alex Solis’s jogging routine with 2 layers of saran wrap around his torso.  Julie Krone was a particularly interesting storyline, as we got to see her comeback from retirement one year before becoming the first woman jockey to win a Breeders’ Cup race, riding Mandella’s Halfbridled to victory in the 2003 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

The final hour of the documentary was almost completely dedicated to the horse Pleasantly Perfect, a horse that is seen sporadically throughout the series standing ‘pleasantly’ in his stall.  Mandella describes him as “…doesn’t try very hard.  A big dummy out there floatin’ around.”  His assistant trainer, Becky, describes the large colt as “lollygagging.”  Mandella finally enters him in a race, in an effort to convince the owner he was worth the $725,000 price tag, but Mandella doesn’t have high hopes.  He tells a reporter that Pleasantly Perfect’s last race was so embarrassing he had to turn him out in a pasture for a year and forget about him.

Pleasantly Perfect comes from behind to win the race.  Unfortunately, a piece of dirt lodges in his throat and he has a Grade 1 bleed.  To my shock, the bleed isn’t much to worry about.  After a round of antibiotics he heads towards another race, which he again wins.  The bleed resurfaces, though, so Mandella sends him in for a chest X-ray.

The veterinarian signs off that the bleeding has not worsened, although there is still some residue.  They put him on an inhaler and begin training again.  The Chicago racing board eventually forces a mandatory rest for Pleasantly Perfect, dashing Mandella’s dreams of racing in the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The following year, although not captured on film, Pleasantly Perfect forged himself into the record books as one of the biggest money earners in racing history.  Not bad for a “lollygagging dummy.”

2003 wasn’t bad for Mandella all around…

I came into this documentary a skeptic.  One, I’m not a fan of horse racing and therefore have never devoted much time to learning about it.  Two, I was very jaded by the misfortune of having watched Animal Planet’s Jockeys.  Still, I enjoyed On the Muscle.  Everything was covered: from racing, to breeding, to veterinary medicine, to shipping problems (at one point Mandella has to scratch a race because the airplane is either broken or missing… we never find out which), to investor relations.  It was a fascinating in-depth look at the daily workings of Mandella’s operation.

Now, I certainly didn’t agree with everything that I was watching.  The sheer quantity of medical procedures involved in keeping these babies running was astounding, but overall it did seem like Mandella cared for his horses… in a detached, “this is a business not a petting zoo” sort of way.  At the very least, the film seemed honest.  They didn’t try to hide the injuries or gloss over them.  Neither did Mandella try and hide the fact that at the end of the day horse racing is about making money.

There are some technical drawbacks to watching this documentary, and probably any documentary.  One, is the image quality.  At times the picture is very blurry.  Second, is the sound quality.  Several times while Mandella and his assistant were trying to discuss things in the barn I could barely hear them over the birds in the rafters making a racket.  I watched online, though, so perhaps these problems are solved if you choose to purchase the DVD.

I give On the Muscle 3 Golden Horseshoes.

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