At the turn of the last century (that’s 1900), Memphis was home to a lively race track called Montgomery Park. The little oval was situated on what was then the outskirts of town, with a small but well-used grandstand. The races were part of the larger Mid-South Fair, which attracted spectators from all walks of life, from all the surrounding states. The upper-crust people from the “Victorian Village” neighborhood stood shoulder to shoulder with the country folks from Arkansas. A quick search of the archives (oh mighty Google, what would I do without you?) turned up among the entries and results a story about a gunfight that broke out in the crowd during one afternoon’s races. The shooting “in the presence of a crowd of five thousand created a sensation.”
(Oh yes, some things never change)
I’ve often wondered what it was like to be there at my hometown’s meet, nothing fancy, just local racing and the cross-section of society having a good time.
Rillito Park is probably the closest I’ll get to the days of the Memphis Jockey Club.
The tiny oval located less than ten minutes from campus is where I’ve spent my weekends since the meet began Jan. 16. Parking is free, admission to the grandstand is free, programs are cheap, the crowds are friendly and you really can get close-up to the action.
I went opening day with my boyfriend, a native Tucsonan who had never been to the track. We spent all afternoon running from the paddock to the windows to the rail for the races, with some exciting moments in-between.
At the chain-link paddock fence before the first race, I pointed out details about the horses and explained a little about what the data was all about in the program. Many of the horses looked like they had come from colder climates and had fuzzy coats but all of them were well-groomed and on their toes.
By far, the best-looking horse in the field of 8 was a chestnut named Southern Irish: he was taller, more muscled and had a sleeker coat than any of his rivals. Boyfriend also being Irish, that sealed the deal.
I made a couple of notes on the program and decided what sort of wager to place, then went up to the window and boyfriend watched in awe as I told the teller my bet. I assured him he’d be as good at it by the end of the day, and we headed to the rail.
The track is situated in the foothills of the Catalinas, with grandstand views dominated by their jagged peaks. In the afternoons, the shadows shift and colors change, creating a majestic backdrop for the equine drama on the track. At the very least, it takes your attention away from the soccer fields in the infield.
Only eight horses make up a full field at Rillito because the oval is so narrow. To give a little perspective, the Kentucky Derby can have a full field of 20, or 2.5 times wider than Rillito. Another thing I found delightfully quirky was the 2-turn 6furlong sprint!
6furlongs! TWO TURNS! AMAZING!
But that’s Rillito. Boyfriend and I watched the horses parade to the gate, confident in Southern Irish’s chances: he still looked like a horse among ponies.
The race itself was a 300-yard dash for quarter horse maidens with a purse of a whole $2000. We stood about halfway between the gate and the finish line, a great spot to experience the thundering hooves.
It was over quicker than the post parade.
Southern Irish sprang from the gate like a jack-in-a-box and never looked back.
Only a dumb pick for place in the exacta kept me from cashing the ticket. Back to the paddock we went to observe for the next race. The jockeys ranged in size from pocket to tall drink of water (well, at least as tall as me, and I ain’t no jockey;-) and they wore house silks in the post position colors.
As the afternoon wore on, the crowd picked up; I ran into most of my RTIP classmates; boyfriend and I watched races from vantage points all around the stretch, from behind the winner’s circle to the far end of the chute, picked a few winners and had to wait for the schoolbell to ring before I could cash the ticket (hehe!).
Drama before the third race: two horses flipped in the gate as the others were loading, a scary situation that took over 15 minutes to sort out. Thankfully, both horses were extricated from the gate unharmed. The tense situation spilled over into the race itself when the inside horse, a first-time starter, dumped her jockey at the break and then jumped over the inside rail!
The jockey walked away with bruised pride, and the horse got to romp around the soccer fields. I don’t remember which horse won the race!
Around the 6th race, boyfriend decided to place a few wagers, one based on a tip we’d gotten from a classmate. There was an Irish-bred who must have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque and ended up in Tucson.
We went up to the window & I placed mine first, then he made a shaky first attempt. I kissed his tickets for luck. Tickets in hand, we found a great spot near the finish line. (Boyfriend also said it was sexy that I knew how to place a bet. Yes, he’s a keeper.)
As the sun slipped lower in the western horizon, the capacity crowd pressed against the rail and watched the sorrel Irish-bred sprint first across the wire. Our cheers echoed through the grandstand and up into the purple shadows of the mountains. Rillito may just be a little bullring out in the desert, but at that moment I could have been at Churchill or Oaklawn or even old Montgomery Park, among the electric crowds who love racing.
(Photos taken 1/30/2010 by Candice C. Curtis)