The Summer of 2009 was spectacular--at least in Saratoga Springs, New York. Thoroughbred racing at its very best took place beneath the northern skies, as some of the world's most talented horses thrilled hundreds of thousands of hearts. The World's Greatest Thoroughbred, one Empress, Rachel Alexandra, made her Spa debut and made history, all on the same day. Summer Bird proved that he has The Stuff, and that he's not just a gorgeous redhead.
Many hearts and minds connected for the first time, as the sweltering weather gave way to the first cool breezes of Autumn. We laughed, we wined, we dined. We cheered 'til we were hoarse, and wept when the beautiful and talented Todo K broke down on the last race, on Labor Day. As we ran that last race of the Saratoga meet together--we all felt the pain of Todo K's connections, for in many ways, truly we are Family.
I attempted to document in this blog the horses, people and events that touched my soul the most during the summer of 2009. But I confess here that it was only an introduction, a passing thought that went through my mind and demanded to be written down--I would need the entire winter to go over each day in my Palm, and write everything and every being that affected my life this past August. And that may be my Winter Project...
And I will, indeed, take a bit of time to completely record this past meet, in a way that's respectful and that I can share with all of you. But as Summer gives way to Autumn--today is The Ultimate Autumn Day, and days like this make me wonder why every Season can't be crisp, the light filtered through red and golden/orange leaves. Why hot apple cider doughnuts aren't the National Food of the United States, and ice-cold river water not considered to be sacred.
It is now Autumn, and I will dive into it, head-first, as if the season, itself, is a pile of freshly-raked leaves--an inviting mound that beckons me to come, destroy the handiwork of some fastidious New Englander who will shake his toothy weapon at me for my mischievous misdeeds. It is Autumn, and I am once again 12 years old, starting out for the first day of school. This time of year always sends me headlong into the LL Bean catalog, and Coldwater Creek, and I fantasize about wearing Tartan-plaid kilts with those big, gold safety pins holding it together at the side-fringe, and kneesocks and parochial school navy blue Mary Janes. I want a new sweater that says, I am as much a part of the landscape of Generic New England, where I live--Bennington and Berkshire Counties are just East of here, we share a border--I am as much as part of the New England landscape as are the maple trees, themselves, and those happy cows in Cabot's backyard.
I will somehow don the colors and fabrics and weights of Autumn's clothing as I prepare for the cold, blood-freezing blast of air that will come sweeping in off Lake Ontario, hell-bent on giving me a cardiac arrest--even though the weather, herself, knows that nothing she can do can frighten me away from my northern Home. I am as much a part of this place as is she, with her long, bony fingers, those tendrils of ice that hang from my rooftop, threatening to pierce my head or my heart when the weight of her hands becomes too much.
I will hunker down, I will deal-with, I will abide the long wait between this day and the last Wednesday in July, when NYRA once again throws open the doors of hospitality and we horse lovers and degenerate gamblers, alike, gleefully sweep onto the grounds like thousands of faithful swallows, returning to San Juan Capistrano.
How will I deal with the Winter? How am I coping with the Fall? After I get over myself and my pre-teen obsession with finding that Tartan-plaid skirt (which, by-the-way, has not revealed itself since my original kilt, in 1968)--after I get over the Snoopy-esque dance in celebration of the bliss of Autumn and the promise of a Winter full of contemplative time and quiet in which to write--after I breathe I will realize that, oh, my God, the Saratoga meet is over. And I, like so many others, will start counting the days until that last Wednesday in July, 2010.
But there are other ways, besides calendar-watching, to pass the time between our nights of freezer burn and the first Sallee Van rolls down Union Avenue in mid-April, the harbingers of Spring that breathlessly inform us that, yes, July is Coming.
We can still participate in the sport we love so well. We can still love the horses, passionately. We can still defend them with the fierceness of heart of a Mother bear. We can watch them race in other places; bet on them if we wish; get involved in the industry in ways we'd possibly not thought of previously.
There's so much to be done between today and July 28, 2010! It seems like a long, dreary Winter lies ahead, but if we each go within and take pen to paper, and outline the things we need and want to accomplish--the realization will hit that we have actually very little time in which to accomplish much.
[So, what is there to do during these Dark Days? Tuesdays during the Saratoga meet are "dark"--that is, there's no racing. But all the days after Labor Day are "dark" to those of us who love the Saratoga meet. It is Mecca, Jerusalem, the Ganges and Sonoma, all rolled into one. It is sacred land, because equine deities have touched their golden hooves to the very ground--and the ground, itself, is sacred by association. And horses--especially Thoroughbreds and their ancestors, the noble Arabians--are the messengers of God, Himself.
Ergo, to not be at the races in Saratoga is to be denied our daily fix of the Divine. We walk where God's very own companion animals have trod. Arabian poets and Englishmen, alike, have sung of the spiritual majesty of the horse. For thousands of years, horses have been revered--hence, the withdrawal experience of a Saratoga meet fan is not just that a "sports fanatic" can't get her fix.
Our dismay is the result of being denied access to the holy place, where our souls take flight every time we feel the primal rumble of the Earth beneath equine hooves--those steely/frail thumbs made sacred by virtue of their holy assignment. We are transported to heavenly realms by these angelic beings. It is their absence that we grieve. We must now find God on our own.]
We shake our heads as so-many fillies in a paddock, and decide that we can make it through the Winter. We will not only survive, we will thrive. We might create a checklist of things that we must accomplish, and equine-related activities that will shore up our souls as we "...do the work we have been given," to paraphrase the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
Your checklist might include some of the following ideas. If not, I urge you to make your own list, to forge your own track through the wintry snows on your way to the Promised Land of next August. If your list varies greatly from this generic one, please send in a Comment and tell me what you'd add. You never know, your observations may help another pilgrim make it through to our next believers' convention in 2010.
However you spend this Autumn and Winter, do not allow the apparent absence of the objects of your passion melt the passion, itself. This season of cold nights and quiet days can be a time to reflect, create, write, paint--and find your racing fix however possible. The need to drive a few extra feet or miles in order to see a race--albeit, not live--is good for the soul. Anything that comes too easily can be taken for granted: strap yourself in. Take a roadtrip. Drive down that snow-strewn road, and find a place to celebrate the horse, and all that you love about the sport, with others of your same ilk.
We'll make it through the Winter. I'll write about anything my mind and heart can conceive that will bring a smile to your faces, maybe even a warm thought to help you hang on to Summer. The Summer of 2009 was singularly wonderful, it will never be repeated. Next year's meet may not have the jijj that 2009 provided--but at least we'll be there, in the sacred space, together.
Things to do Between Today and Opening Day, 2010
* Write about how you came into racing, and get your missive to Nancy Denofio, who will handle your story with great care and dignity.
* Write poetry! Have you ever tried to write poetry about racing, or horses? Do you know that you can't?
* If you want to be inspired, read "Thoroughbreds" penned by the late, brilliant horseman, Paul Mellon. The poem was read at his funeral. Will be read at mine. Cue the Irish music, and get out a hankie before you read it the first or 1,000th time.
* Buy some PrismaColor pencils, some blackboard and try to draw a horse using just light and shade. (Hint: show the direction from which the light is coming, and the horse will magically appear. Don't draw lines--let the light and shadow define the object.)
* Get a Palm, or at least a calendar featuring horses and lots of space for writing. Now, mark these things onto your new calendar. This is a very brief outline, just meant to get you going on that calendar, and to get you excited. Fill in the gaps with your own racing dates:
* October 3, 2009: Jockey Club Gold Cup. Belmont. Yay!
* March 27, 2010: Dubai World Cup!
* May 1 - June 5, 2010: Triple Crown Trail
* Think about this question: have you ever wanted a job working in racing, or with horses? If the answer is yes, spend some time this Winter thinking about how you might make that dream come true. You really can be living your vocation--the reason you were put on the planet. Just think about the gifts and talents that God gave you, and your passion. If, like me, your passion is those gorgeous horses and the sport of racing them--now, wed your talents to your passion. Whatever you come up with using that formula--that's your vocation. Winter is a great time to find your vocation, and make plans toward the realization of your dream. Or to decide that you really will spend the rest of your life stuck in that job that you detest, sticking hot needles in your eyes because you can't bear to look at your "superior" one more day.
It's your choice--and Winter gives you the time, space and quietude to make that decision.
* Think about another question: How Can You Help? By posing the question, "How may I help?" on a regular basis, our eyes and hearts open to new possibilities, as often as we ask. Well, that question should be posed in regard to the horses, who--as brilliant, beautiful and intellectually astute as they are--are incapable of helping themselves. Whether your passion is the anti-slaughter movement; the wild Mustangs of the Midwest and the West; rescue and retirement; injury and illness (veterinary causes)--there's a cause for you. If you really love horses, and if they changed your very life the first time you met one--you owe it to them to spend some time this Winter trying to make the world a better, more compassionate place for all equines, horses and burros, alike.
Go to Google. Type in a phrase, and you're bound to find an organization that fits your inquiry. Facebook has thousands of pro-horse, anti-pain organizations--if you have a Facebook page, you can easily find them. If you have an idea in mind, or just can't find an equine organization that fits your thoughts, or aren't sure how you want to help--please contact me through Saratoga.com, and I'll help you find the group or organization that will help you feel fulfilled as you speak out for horses.
* Away from the Deep Stuff! Now, to feeding our shared obsession. If you were in Saratoga this summer. If you weren't in Saratoga this summer, but aim to be here in 2010. If you watched live racing from wherever you live, at your local track, and that is now over. Wherever you were, if you're not leaning on a rail right now--you need not fret.
There are horse sports of all kinds, 12 months a year, virtually everywhere. In Saratoga, the harness track--Saratoga Raceway--offers live racing from March 1 through mid-December. You can sit in their gorgesous, Cirque du Soleil-esque restaurant, Fortune's, and have a beautiful dinner while you bet right from your seat on the racing action right in front of you. You didn't know that? Get thee to Jefferson Street, order the Prime Rib Buffet and place your bet with the nice lady holding the little computer in her hahd.
So we in Saratoga have 'til December 15th to get a fix of horse racing, live, in 2009. March 1, 2010 will bring harness racing back to town--and with it, the countdown to (Thoroughbred) Triple Crown season. Many other locations around the United States have harness racing (Standardbreds), and seasons that are similar to that of Saratoga Raceway. This should help you get a fix of live racing, and alleviate those jitters--at least for a while.
* If you can't get to harness racing or live Thoroughbred racing during the Autumn and Winter--there's always simulcasting. OTB parlors, racinos and harness tracks all have simulcasting parlors--which can be a blast. If you're a hard-core bettor (I am not), you might not think of this as fun as much as I--but then again, hard-cores think of handicapping and wagering as being work. But if you're anything like me--and the majority of Thoroughbred fans are fanatics about the horses, and love the sport--but aren't necessarily heavy bettors--then you'll have a great time at simulcasting. Whether you're at Keeneland's beautiful simulcasting rooms or the local OTB and pizza joint--it's great fun to be able to watch a dozen races from all around the world, all at once. You can place a friendly wager if you like, or just hang with your friends and look to see which horses have the best racefaces. At any rate, simulcasting is a great way to spend your Autumn and Winter when no live racing is available.
* What? No simulcasting options? By the supreme Grace of God--and the racing authorities--there's always racing going on somewhere on Planet Earth. If you have absolutely no way to see live racing for several months, and don't live within 200 miles of a simulcasting opportunity--please turn on the TV. If you don't have TVG or HRTV (Who does?)--local OTBs have racing. (Thank God for OTB-TV here in New York.) Someone, somewhere, will have racing on television, and you do need a fix, now and then.
* Stay in-touch with the racing community via our friends who publish The Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times and the Daily Racing Form. These publications have online presences, and Facebook pages, also, for those of us who don't have subscriptions or newsstands in town which carry them.
Whatever you do, you can make it through the Winter of 2009, and get juiced for the Saratoga meet, 2010. Yes, this year was one-of-a-kind. We may never experience another meet like it, in our lifetimes. But next year will have its own virtues, winners, losers and surprises. One of the surprises may very well be that you discover your own racing dreams, and move from Passionate Fan to a professional position within the sport. The Sport of Kings isn't just for royalty anymore. And it takes people from every walk of life, in every profession--including yours and mine--to make it happen every day.
The only one who can prevent you from being involved in racing, as involved as you want to be, is...you. Spend some time during the quiet stillness of Winter to reflect on this, then come charging out of the gate in 2010, determined to make a difference.
The mind you save may be your own.
As always--may the Horse be with you,
[Photos of Mother Russia winning at Saratoga and "Around the Turn"--Lee Millett. Thank you so much, Lee! Photo of snow on Taborton Mountain--well, I took it with my cell phone, but I need to thank Karen and Greg Messier for providing such a warm, nurturing environment in which I can just BE and watch the snow fly outside their windows. Your spirits make the mountain a haven, where I feel God and the quiet wonder of His Creation.]