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Original Issue

Memories of a Fallen Friend

Susan Willmot was an owner of Play the King, a 6-year-old gelding who broke down at Pimlico in 1989 and was destroyed by lethal injection. When SI sought Willmot's permission to use photographs of the breakdown for our story on racing injuries, she responded with this letter

I lay awake last night feeling bad about having to tell you that you could not use the pictures of Play the King. Not because it was the wrong decision, but because I wanted to be sure you understood why my husband and I would make such a decision. To you, the photos are "dramatic, but not horrific." To us they are more horrific.

Looking again at the photographs of King lying there in the dirt at Pimlico brought back a flood of memories. I can play back the moments after the photo was taken like they are on videotape. His jockey, Kent Desormeaux, managed to clear King and land on his feet, his crop in his right hand. He slammed it against his boot as he watched King struggle. I'm told that I let out a wail that filled the Turf Club. I don't remember.

Roger Attfield, our trainer, jumped up from our table, saying, "Oh my God, oh my God." Tears were in his eyes as he raced to the track. He would later tell us that Kent kept saying over and over, "What a tough horse. He tried so hard. He wanted to win." Down on the track Roger held King's head, trying to soothe him as they put a special boot on his injured leg so that he could hobble onto the wagon.

At our table we kept trying to console ourselves that something, anything, could be done to save his life. We would have spared no expense to make it happen. But when Roger came back, he couldn't speak. He just shook his head no. We sat in silence before taking a quick vote, deciding to go home to Canada immediately.

When we got to the airport, we watched the Preakness on TV and saw Sunday Silence edge Easy Goer in a stretch duel. I only felt numb, detached from everything around me. On the plane I sat by myself and wept. We all wept.

I feel confident that I speak for all owners when I say that when tragedy such as this strikes, we don't just shrug it off and say, "Oh, what a shame," and go merrily on our way. The pain lingers. It has left a hole in my heart that will never be filled. Losing a horse this way is just short of losing a child. Photo editors and television types scoff at horse owners and accuse them of being overly sensitive. But just imagine if you had to watch over and over again your child being crushed by a car. "Oh, there, you sec, it got his arm first and then rolled over the body." Horrific hardly sums it up.

When King was born, he was just a little, dark-brown colt who was absolutely undistinguished—the equine version of the ugly duckling. As a yearling, while the others were being broken, he stood in a sand ring in Ocala, Fla., because he had a bruised foot and wasn't "ready." As a 2-year-old, he was a gawky kid who couldn't get out of his own way. Early in his third year he was tried again on the track. He still showed nothing. Back home on our farm in King City, Ont., he was tried over fences. No ability there, either. The decision was made to send him back to the track and let him find his own level. The expectation was we would lose him in the claiming ranks. But over the summer he began to find himself. The gawky kid started training and working with assurance. And speed. King won his first start in October and never looked back.

At the Breeders' Cup sprint at Churchill Downs in the fall of 1988, King was 49-1 when the gate opened. Donnie Seymour, his regular jockey, and King came tearing down the stretch to take the lead. But Gulch caught King just before the wire. King had just outrun the fastest horses in the world, save one, and it felt like a victory to us, a summation of everything that is wonderful about horse racing. The gawky youngster had grown up to be a hero. And we were lucky enough to be a part of his story. So I hope you can understand that our "no" to using the pictures is not a superficial, selfish no. I will read your article with great interest. Everyone involved with the sport hopes fervently that ways to save these horses in distress can be found.

We have nothing left of King but our memories and a stone here at the farm, commemorating his life. But here in Ontario there is a wildflower that blooms every spring, a three-leaved white blossom that is at its most glorious just about the time of the Preakness. I have planted these in the woods outside our house along with a sea of blue forget-me-nots. Every May we crowd around the TV to sec who will win the Preakness. But the race recalls other images. I look out the window, see the trilliums, almost floating above the wispy blue. And remember.



In 1987 Willmot led King to the winner's circle at Woodbine.