Why I love the race track.

Why I love the race track.

Why I love the race track.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 14 2004 6:45 PM

Down the Stretch They Come

Confessions of a child horse-racing addict.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

In the third grade, I partook in a passionate classroomwide skirmish between the boys and the girls. The girls wanted the right to bring our My Little Ponies to recess without fearing that the boys would snatch the ponies from us and swing them by their acrylic tails, while tauntingly chanting their ridiculous names—"Moondancer," "Blossom," "Rainbow Dash." The boys, disgusted by disruption of the stern realms of dodge ball and tag, wanted the right to pillage, trample, and destroy any "Pinky Pie" on sight. I fought on the side of the Ponies—I was a girl, and like many young girls, I loved horses. But privately I agreed with the boys: These things were kind of lame. (What was up the patterns printed on their rumps, anyway?) What I loved were racehorses.

I was an 8-year-old horse racing junkie. My father used to like to tell his friends—and later, embarrassingly, my friends—that I could read the Daily Racing Form before I'd learned to read. Like most of his stories, this was exaggerated for effect, but it wasn't far off the mark: Decoding the Racing Form is mostly a matter of understanding numbers and shorthand like "Breezed, ridden out." I spent much of third grade taking notes about my favorite horses—Devil's Bag, Lady's Secret, Ferdinand—and their chances in upcoming stakes races like the Wood Memorial. At home, I kept a regularly updated file of statistics clipped from the Racing Form or squibbed from Steven Crist's latest column in the New York Times: lists of the highest earners at stud, the best dams, the top-grossing colts under the age of 3. And, of course, I went to the track with my parents, and begged them to take me. When I was 10, after reading William Nack's excellent biography of Secretariat, Big Red of Meadow Stable(recently republished as Secretariat: The Making of a Champion), it became apparent to me that my calling in life was to be a horse trainer. I began a regimen: I woke early (trainers woke early); I ate only Raisin Bran for breakfast (horses ate bran mash); I got a stop-watch.

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Needless to say, it was a pretty lonely infatuation. The girls I knew were divided into two groups: those who loved dogs, and those who loved horses. But "horses" meant show horses; racehorses were seedy, another thing altogether. One day a friend told me she thought it was "sad" that the horses were "forced" to race, which horrified me. She'd missed the point: The best racehorses weren't just fast, they were game. Or, as one racing type recently said in Sports Illustrated of this year's Kentucky Derby winner, Smarty Jones, "He was running hard—and he was likin' it." Meanwhile, the boys I knew, preoccupied with sabermetrics baseball, wouldn't deign to converse about horses—even in their own idiom. ("Hey, if you could see one Kentucky Derby, which would it be, Secretariat's or Citation's?")

But because I lived in New York City, and my parents were struggling schoolteachers at the time, I never learned to ride. And it could be that I fell in love with racehorses precisely because I couldn't have any other kind of horse in my life. But I think it had to do with something else: a model of ambition (the other great American past-time) and a concrete way of deciphering it. Horse racing made the whole unruly world seem manageable: a fifth of a second equaled a length; a mile was made up of eight furlongs; when you looked closely at a horse's bloodlines you could determine where his final burst of speed at the sixteenth pole came from. There was also something endlessly beautiful, exciting, and breathtaking to witnessing how quickly the horses storm up the stretch, how much effort is expended, and how fast it is over. The percussive thud of hooves, the quiet aftermath—and here came a new set of horses into the paddock, ready to be saddled up, crisp saddlecloths stretched over their backs, their tails cocked, eyes taking in the crowd.

Of course, there was also something melancholy about it all, and in a sense my friend was right. Today's cautious parenting columnists would probably hold that a racetrack is not a suitable place for a 8-year-old. But at the time I didn't notice that many of my fellow enthusiasts were ragged around the edges. When I did, I was old enough so that this made a kind of sense—of course someone who was old or terribly alone or a drunk would come to the track, where every half-hour there was the chance of something amazing; even if that day's winners were more like also-rans, there was the pageantry to keep you going. The bright silks always seemed hopeful, the jockeys and the backstretch hangers-on were right out of Dickens—oversized Jimmy the Greek, dignified Charlie Whittingham (my favorite trainer), and Angel Cordero Jr., the tiny, brusque jockey who simply won, and won, and won the last season we were at Saratoga.

The thrall of the track, in other words, was never just about wanting a horse I could call my own, though it was partly that. For me, as a kid, the draw of racing was about learning how things worked, glimpsing the disappointments of training hard to win a 6-furlong stakes race that lasts 1:08 2/5 seconds. In some ways, it was about wanting to be adult, to read adult newspapers, make adult bets—to feel the consequences of action; but to feel them, of course, in a world cradled by a strange, undying romanticism. In today's Culturebox on racetrack literature, Eric Banks points out that the crop of books generated in the aftermath of Seabiscuit hysteria skews more toward memoir than racetrack taxonomy. For these writers, he argues, the track is a site of nostalgia: an icon of a lost America, or a lost childhood spent reading The Black Stallion or Misty of Chincoteague. He's right that this track writing is obsessed with details, with recapturing ephemeral sensations, but for me horse racing and its trappings were all about the future.

I don't remember the outcome of the My Little Pony War. But I do remember the end of my enchantment with racing. It came while watching the 1990 Breeder's Cup, during the Distaff Race, for mares. That was the year Go For Wand broke down in the stretch, right in front of where I sat with my family. She led the race, I seem to remember, most of the way and was bravely fighting off a late challenge when she took a bad step. She stumbled over herself and fell hard—and then, wildly, got up. Only something had gone terribly wrong. On her next stride, her foreleg went down and bent the wrong way. She picked it up and it flopped back and forth. Someone caught her reins and within what seemed like minutes the track vet had put her down. It was one of the most awful things I've ever seen. (There are pictures of it from Sports Illustrated posted here; be warned that they're not pleasant to look at.)

I haven't gone to the track much since Go For Wand's breakdown. In a way, that was the moment I learned you couldn't always decipher things, that you couldn't always make sense of them: Her fall was the messy consequence itself, a tragedy that you were part of simply because you happened to see it. But I still keep a button with a picture of Lady's Secret above my desk, which says "The Lady Is a Champ," and I still like to wear my "Easy Goer" T-shirt when I go running. It makes me feel faster than I am.

Meghan O’Rourke is Slate’s culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at the New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother’s death, is now out in paperback.