Homage to Horse Racing and the Stayers

Ah, spring. And the attention of horse lovers of all kinds turns to the Thoroughbred racing world.

For reasons I can’t even begin to fathom, I have been enthralled by horse racing as long as I can remember. I recall watching every moment of the Kentucky Derby broadcast on television in the house where we lived before I was even old enough for school, and I never, ever missed seeing the race until the May I was in Norway as an exchange student.

The posters on my bedroom walls when I was a teenager weren’t of rock stars and actors – it was Secretariat who dominated the décor. I still remember right where I was when I heard the great horse had been put down, and I sat in my car alongside a Washington highway bawling my eyes out because he was dead and I never got to go see him in his retirement home at Claiborne.

And while I have plenty of issues with an industry that can treat living beings as tools to be thrown away when they no longer work, for some reason I still cannot manage to listen to Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses” without sobbing. (Highly amusing to my then-boyfriend the one time I heard the song live in concert, on a Preakness day sometime in the late ‘80s.)

Some years I’m more interested than others. This year, not so much. The last horse who really had me going was Smarty Jones. Actually, I laugh at myself when I realize I’m scoffing at the inevitable media predictions that one horse or another is “the one” to win the Triple Crown. “Oh,” I think, “that horse isn’t worthy. This isn’t a Triple Crown year.” As if I know or have any right to make such a pronouncement. But, then, I do really believe there haven’t been many horses in the past three decades who lived up to Big Red, nor a rivalry to match the thrilling, down-to-the-wire Affirmed/Alydar match-ups.

And what does any of this have to do with anything, really? Well, the other day I got to thinking about the qualities of those precious few people in my life whom I consider Friends-with-a-capitol-“F.” I have loads of acquaintances whose company I seek out and enjoy and a number of friends-with-a-small-“f” who form a solid and much-appreciated support system. But there is a miniscule number of humans I really, really trust. And the overarching quality I prize in those women (yes, they’re all women) is staying power.  I may have known them for decades or not, but they all have some serious chops – the character, moral fiber and fortitude to go the distance.

And this has what to do with Thoroughbred racing? In my brain, on the day, a connection between which Triple Crown race I most respect and how the test it poses reveals the same qualities in a horse that I most seek in the people with whom I work and live.

With all its pomp and tradition, the Derby certainly is dear to me. I haven’t been to any of the Triple Crown races, but I did spend several days at Churchill Downs in the late ‘70s on the only out-of-state family vacation we ever took. I still can picture those magical early mornings, when horses seemed to materialize right out of the mist that hung over the track and partially obscured the famous twin spires. Horse-girl heaven!

The Preakness, the “middle child” of the Triple Crown series and shortest of the trio, I watch just to see if the Derby horse can hold up. I have missed the broadcast many times over the years without much regret; replays on the evening news, or now on the internet, are good enough. Maybe it’s those made-over daisies in the winner’s blanket …

Turns out that my real favorite of the three classics is the Belmont, the distance race, the contest that asks those ridiculously young horses to run farther than they’ll ever race again unless they happen to spend their careers in Europe. Now I’ve had fun at various small tracks watching the Quarter Horses run, but those short races just don’t quite do it for me. Give me a long distance wire-to-wire win or a great come-from-nowhere in the last seconds of a mile-plus contest any day. And, for racing in this country, the Belmont is the ultimate test of staying power.

That’s what I’ll be looking for when I watch the race on Saturday and as I make choices in my own life. Who can go the distance …