Friday, October 5, 2007

How the Racing Bug Big

I blame the Preakness. It’s the Preakness’ fault I fell in love with racing. There was tradition. There was the sun. There was the crowd and colors and sights and sounds. And there were the horses. Our vantage point on the far turn allowed us the opportunity to see the pack angling for position before the last sprint to the finish. I was almost shocked at the power and speed of the animal. The muscles straining, veins popping and the breath…the breath was amazing. Hearing the nostrils flaring and the hoofbeats pounding so close was like a strong baseline at a concert – it was like a part of you. I was hooked right then and there.

In 1985 I was working as an intern for the State of Ohio’s Washington office and another intern there was a racing fan. We decided that it would be fun that year to go to the Preakness Stakes. Hell, we were 19, living on our own and heading out to the biggest outdoor party in Baltimore. Sounded pretty good to me. We weren’t going to get all fancy, we were shleping in the infield and it was party time. A funny thing happened on the way to the party – handicapping intervened. I actually cared who won!! My pick was Badger Land. The winner was Snow Chief. A guy in the office took one look at the entries and nailed it. I studied like a maniac and just knew that it was going to be the Badger. I was wrong, of course. To add insult to injury I had a Snow Chief – Badger Land exacta box so I missed that as well. However it was a gorgeous early summer day in Maryland and we drank beer, flirted (no, not with each other), bet and watched the horses run.

Pimlico Racetrack is located on the northside of Baltimore smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood. From what I understand, it has since seen better days as slots in the neighboring states of Delaware and Pennsylvania are draining the quality horses away from the fabled racetrack. Most famously known for the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Thoroughbred Triple Crown, Pimlico was also the site of the famous match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in 1938.

I spent the rest of the summer getting out to Pimlico and Laurel as often as I could. It wasn’t very often as I didn’t have a car and not too many teenagers were (or are) into horse racing, though I certainly tried to convince them. I found a charter service that left downtown DC and went out to the track every day. I didn’t go every day, of course. Not even once a week. But I went whenever I had enough money to get out there. For a college student it was an expensive day: $10 for the bus, $2.50 for the Daily Racing Form, $2.00 admission, $1.00 for a program. That’s $16 right out of the gate for a guy that rarely had more than a $20 at any given time. But it was the racetrack and I got to do things on those days that I wasn’t able to do at the Preakness because of the lack of crowds. I could get right up on the rail. I could spend time near the walking ring and really take in the race track, it’s characters and the animals. My favorite spot to watch a race I didn’t bet on was the turn coming into the stretch. That’s when the field would fan out and the jocks would start asking for speed, chirping and yipping at their chargers. It was an amazing sight for me. Sight? Everything was a part of it, the sight and sounds. It just set my blood racing. Even today, the best pictures in the Blood-Horse or Thoroughbred Times are those head on shots right as the field enters the stretch.

The animals on those quiet weekdays when the feature race was a $40,000 allowance and the staple was the $5000 claimers were a step down from Preakness Day. OK, a staircase down. But they were no less beautiful. In fact, they may have been more beautiful in their own way. They were sore and bandaged and struggled to eke out a living in the daily grind that is weekday horse racing. But they were still strong and proud. There were magnificently bred animals that had lost their promise years ago. Former stakes placed geldings that had no value at stud could be had now for as little as $5,000. But there was still pride in the eyes of most of them. They made me think about the humans I know and the adult I was becoming. Could I be so proud in defeat? Continue to try to be the best for one day when my best days were behind me? Could my friends and family bear up to the kind of scrutiny that these horses endured? I know, I know. They’re race horses and they don’t have emotions like humans, blah, blah, blah. I dare anyone to watch the film of Ruffian running on 3 legs against Foolish Pleasure and tell me there isn’t something more behind those eyes. To watch Affirmed and Alydar battle down the stretch and think that there is not a competitiveness that mirrors the top human athletes in the world. I dare you. If you can’t see it, you ain’t breathing.

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