I was reading Slate about a month ago and stumbled on an article fondly recounting the panic surrounding Y2K on its ten-year anniversary. Confusion swirled in my mind: **headdesk** “WHAT? Y2K was a decade ago? How’d that happen?!” Day ruined after realizing how much time I’d wasted over 10 years, I settled down with a bottle of my favorite Woodford Reserve and did the only thing that really makes me feel better in those bourbon-soaked moments: watch horse races on YouTube!
As I relived the 2002 Kentucky Derby, I had to laugh at my initial melancholy. I hadn’t wasted the ’00s at all. Heck, I was sitting in an apartment in Tucson, Arizona watching those races, a place 1999 me would never have imagined visiting, let alone making a home. I thought about all of the great times and amazing people I had met since leaving the ’90s, and the things I’d learned and experienced over all of these years. The Aughts have been good to The Infield, and here are my personal Top 10 Moments. I’ve kept a blog of some sort for the entire decade, so I’ve pulled excerpts from them to help flesh out the list.
10. Blood-Horse Magazine Subscription: Sure, it’s not exactly an “event”, but this magazine changed my life once the first issue came in my mailbox in March 1999. I had saved my allowance for a month to afford the outrageous subscription price, $52 (it was on a special). I even remember that first issue: Free House’s Santa Anita Handicap win. The hard copy edition was supplemented by the online version, which I checked religiously and still do. I have all 10 years of Blood-Horse issues in boxes in my parents’ attic.
9. 2003 Ashford Stud Open House: A fabulous farm I’d wanted to visit ever since reading about the “Open House” in the Blood-Horse stallion ads. Convinced parents to make the drive in their brand new Ford Explorer. It was frigid up in Kentucky. I remember the snow blowing around like sand on the street. And the gorgeous horses!
They’ve got Thunder Gulch, the 1995 KY Derby winner & the horse who got me into racing (he’s also the sire of “Power” Point Given, 2001 Horse of the Year, yeee). They’ve got European champion, “Iron Horse” Giant’s Causeway & Johannesburg, a world champion. And (drumroll please)… Fusaichi Pegasus lives at Ashford, too. FuPeg won the KY Derby in 2000. He’s a stunner! God, it was amazing. Ashford’s farm office was bigger than my entire house, made of stone with a slate roof. Heck, it was bigger than most homes in Memphis. And the barns…like castles, with high, pointed roofs and arched doors made of heavy oak and bronze hardware. It was freezing but sunny and bright, and the whole place, I swear, looked like it was smiling.
I met the stallion manager, who asked me if I had some mares. I told him I was simply a fan, and then he asked me if I wanted some pictures. Heck yeah! With the clap of his hands, the grooms scurried to bring the stallions out. I felt like I was visiting the O’Haras at Tara at that moment…
My Dad got the trophy for dumbest question. Y’see, the farm is owned by Irish millionaires, as an affiliate of their Coolmore racing organization. Everybody there was either from Europe or Mexico; heck, even the african-american guys had a little bit of emerald isle to their speech. So as the stallion manager is telling us about a horse, my Dad says: “I detect an accent. Are you Irish?”
8. Horse Mania 2000 in Lexington: As a newly-minted high school graduate, I travelled to Lexington for the annual Breyerfest, but ended up going far beyond the Horse Park’s boundaries in search of the life-sized models scattered around town. I got a map of the 75 artists’ horses and tracked them all down, snagging a picture of each in its ‘natural’ habitat. These horses were the forerunners of the “Painted Ponies” that you can get in Hallmark stores today. Even in my pre-digital camera days, I must say I took some niiice pics, and if you know me well you just might have gotten a card with one of them on it. This trip showed me more of the city known as Horse Heaven, a place I someday hoped to live. Boy, did things change!
7. Oaklawn Park 4-Exacta Weekend: In March 2008, I took a weekend trip to Hot Springs with a friend from work who really needed a break. The track was unusually empty due to a snowstorm that coated the mountains in a beautiful, icy powder. My luck ran blinding hot, though!
You can just call me a cashier, because I’m the Lady they had to Pay today at Oaklawn! I hit 4 Exactas, beginning in the 3rd race and a share of the $68 payout! Malengi/Air Corredor was the play of the day, but not the last. Before the 5th race, I eavesdropped on a man sitting behind me talking on his cell phone & asking the person on the other end what number horse he/she liked. The man said, “Six? Ok, I’ll bet $2 on six for you. He’s got a good jockey.” SO I looked and saw that yes, 6, Run For Shelter, had a great jockey in Calvin Borel. So I used Run For Shelter & a proven off-track horse, Star of the Day in my box. It was a thrilling run, as those 2 dueled in the stretch. I won $12.50 on that one. In the 6th race, I repeated with another exacta, this time with the hunch bet of the year. I picked Smarty Matt Jones, not only because of the similarity to the famous Derby winner, but because of a nice gent I work with named Mott. Smarty Matt won, my 2nd choice Pitton’s Road was 2nd, and I won ANOTHER exacta! that was 2-in-a-row! I couldn’t believe it, and still don’t even now. A lull in the action, a couple of close calls later, and then the 10th and final race. In a thrilling stretch run, Riproarious held off Port Hueneme to clinch my 4th exacta ticket of the day. It was the shortest-priced ticket and so only paid $7.50.
6. John Henry Memorial 2007: Saying goodbye to the most accomplished, legendary horse I’d ever met that October afternoon was like going to the funeral of an old friend. John Henry welcomed me with a snort the first time I visited the Horse Park and was an enduring presence for all the years I made the pilgrimage. A bagpiper played the mournful strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” as the wind picked up and bent back the floral arrangements standing around the horse’s final resting place. All of the people he’d touched throughout his long racing career and the many workers at the Hall of Champions who’d dodged his teeth during his retirement stood and remembered the big heart in the small, brown gelding who persevered against all odds.
John Henry was an icon of the bluegrass, and I will miss seeing him. He was the greatest horse I ever laid eyes on, including perhaps Seattle Slew. As the speakers regaled us with their tales of John on the track, I looked up at the brilliant blue sky and those fantastic, cottony clouds, and imagined the old horse cantering over them, finally challenging the other greats — Secretariat, Slew, Affirmed, Forego– to the race he always dreamed of winning in life
5. Kentucky Derby 2007/2008: I group these together because they are so hard to separate in terms of excitement and wagering luck. 2007 was Street Sense and the Queen, ’08 Big Brown and Eight Belles. The year Street Sense won, I was camped out along the backstretch fence under a big, blue tarp tent, praying that it wouldn’t rain.
I stood pressed against the fence, facing the backstretch, craning my neck to see the horses. I heard them first – the thunder of their hooves drowned out the roar of the raucous drunks all around me. Suddenly, I saw them. From my post I could just see their muscled necks and the tips of their ears, and the brilliant colors of the jockey’s silks all in a blur. The field of 20 whipped past, and my heart skipped a beat when I recognized the yellow and blue colors of Street Sense at the back of the pack — and he was ON THE RAIL! I pumped my fist in the air and screamed, “Go! Go! Go! He’s on the RAIL! He’s on the RAIL! STREET SENSE!”
Big Brown’s Derby was the best ticket-building year, as I had Big Brown, Eight Belles and Denis of Cork in my Exacta box. I am still kicking myself for not making it a straight-up tri, but alas, I still chased out ahead. Eight Belles’s tragic death turned cold what had been a jubilant day, and I was very torn up over it.
THE FILLY — Of course I wasn’t going to go through this entire blog without saying something about EIGHT BELLES. I wore her button all day long & touted her as I waited in the betting lines. I was ecstatic with her performance after the Derby. She had come in 2nd to Big Brown, beating all of those other colts & looking fabulous. She’d also given me $141! But my mood plummeted as I heard on my radio that she’d gone down. I stopped singing and listened, hoping they’d got it wrong, that she was OK, that it was another horse & that it wasn’t bad. I searched the jumbotron with my binocs, looking for some glimpse of news or shot of her waking off the track. But it was futile. She was gone. I had to leave the track right then. I couldn’t stay any longer with the filly’s brave effort still flashing in my mind. I had to go be quiet for a while. I felt bad for Big Brown, too, as his Derby will always be marred by the loss of Eight Belles. She was one of the best of her class, both colt or filly. Later that night, I went out to Cracker Barrel with Jim & Mary, and I saw Larry Jones, Eight Belles’s trainer, with his group. It was a somber table. They talked quietly and I could see the pain in their faces. I wanted to go up & say something to them, as I still had on my Eight Belles button, but I thought it may be too intrusive, too soon. They left shortly after, but I know it was a long, hard night for them all, and a sad, empty stall for them to wake up to this morning.
4. Breeders’ Cup 2006: My first Breeders’ Cup and the first event I attended with Jim & Mary Gaffney. I took over a bench near the paddock rail and took pictures of every horse that stepped into it. It was cold, kind of damp, very crowded but I loved every minute of it!
By far the best race of the day was Ouija Board in the Filly & Mare Turf. She is the first horse to win that race twice, and one of only 5 horses who have won 2 BC races. The English filly, owned by Lord Derby, and ridden by the hot Italian Frankie Dettori was simply, honestly, brilliant. She made her entrance in the paddock to ooos and ahhhs and with an entourage that would rival some rock stars (though nothing like Bernardini’s would be later, more on that). She made several laps of the saddling ring with a quiet confidence, a rock in stormy seas. I tried my best to get pics of her, but mainly I simply took her in. The race was won for me right there, but on the turf she turned in a dazzling performance. Ouija Board stalked the pace and then rushed by the leaders to win going away, ears pricked, jock mostly still. The 5 year-old mare goes out a winner in the best season of her career.
3. Secretariat Bronze Installation 2006: After nearly 10 years of fundraising, the Secretariat Bronze was installed in April 2006. I was there, front-row, for the dedication, because I had purchased a paver with mine & my horse’s names on it. I also met someone who I am still friends with today, and who encouraged me to follow my dream of being in racing, Jim Gaffney:
The Sec Foundation people were still setting up the tables. Lots of nice schwag: photos, prints, magazine covers, posters, bronze sculptures, tees and hoodies, Ron Turcotte bobblehead that bares a striking resemblance to the guy in the wheelchair over by the Coke machines…oh wait! It IS Ron Turcotte by the Coke machines! A smiling gentleman asks if Mom & I are sisters…it’s Jim Gaffney, who was Secretariat’s main exercise rider! He liked us, and took pictures with us and even gave me an autographed photo. Awesomeness. I promised to write him and then gave him an Elvis Week pin I carried along just for such occasions.
2. Kentucky Derby 2005: The first time I camped out in the infield. The first time I had a mint julep. The first time I got lunch meat thrown on me while watching a race…My First Kentucky Derby! I started counting down before my departure:
I can’t believe I’m leaving in 3 days! My heart rate is up way past what is healthy, I can’t sleep, am easily distracted, and have a permanent case of hoofbeat tinitis…I’m counting down the hours! At 9AM Thursday I leave for Louisville!!!!!! Whaaaaa-hoooooo! … It’s Cinco de Mayo, and my-oh-my am I stoked! I am leaving in about 10 minutes for DERBY CITY!!! YESSS!!!
And then, after Giacomo’s 50-1 shocker:
I had a blast!
4 Days in Louisville, 2 whole days at the track, plus the museum, and the Tour de Louisville, the Cracker Barrels, the Detroit kids, the Super Hero Kill-a-Thon, the tunnel of death, the furlong hike, the hats, the beer, the hellish nightmare porta-potties, the longshot, the show bets, the brownie woman, ‘Big Pedro’, the juleps, the bluegrass, the paddock so crowded with people you couldn’t stir ’em with a stick, the Pecan Divinities, the most outrageous, unforgettable, amazing, incomparable, unbeatable experience I SURVIVED KY DERBY 131!!!!!!
So, what’s #1? Tune in later for my best racing moment in the decade!