Horse racing is the most thrilling, heart-stopping sport in the world.
Fans of other sports--say, football, football ("soccer"), et al, will argue this point. But I posit here that the key reason why horse racing is the single-most exciting sport is simple: as long as humans and horses have occupied the same space, there's been horse racing. It may have been a match race between two bored riders in the Mongolian Steppe; Egyptians in the desert; Roman chariot contests or two Irish farmers tilling the soil with their respective steeds leading the way down the rows.
The settings have changed over the years. But make no mistake: horse racing has been a contest between a human and her/his horse, against another team--for as long as the two species were in close physical proximity to each other.
There's something Jungian about both the connection and the archetypal representation here: the thing that made the two farmers duke it out in their Irish fields is the same deep, inner need that motivates potential owners and trainers today. Different mode of dress, maybe thousands of years separated from the Mongolian Steppe racers--but the same primal, organic need to connect with The Horse, and to share victory with the Greatest Companion Animal, ever.
We humans need horse racing, as much as the sport needs us.
Yes, horse racing is the most exciting sport in the world, for reasons far more intricate than can be argued in a few pages. Students of the human psyche would do well to delve into the deep psychological reasons for the sport, and the finely interwoven connections of mind and spirit between the horse and her human.
Now, you see, this finally brings me to the main topic of this column: The Horse, and the renewal of the sport of racing. This summer at Saratoga--as every summer before, and--God willing--every summer for centuries to come--hundreds of thousands of fans will flock to the small, sophisticated city of Saratoga Springs, New York.
Like so many eager beavers, the visitors will descend on the Spa City with great joy and delight. Packing hopes, dreams, kids, dress-up clothes, dress-down clothes, coolers, Clubhouse ticets, reservations at Siro's--and ready to Have Fun!--these folks will inject the Adirondack city with merriment, money and unbridled joy for 40 days.
Without race fans of all different stripes, economic backgrounds and agenda--racing would die on the vine. Saratoga isn't alone in her need for the annual infusion of cash and dreamers: racing as a whole needs this obsessive, shared insanity with which we willingly infect ourselves.
Racing needs the fans, the racing professionals, the passion.
But everyone, from the racing pros who are in town for all 40 days, to the single fan who can make it to Saratoga for just one sultry afternoon--all need to stop for a minute. Breathe. Take in that early-morning Saratoga mist over the track--and realize that, without The Horse--none of this would happen.
And I think that, by-and-large, we do know that. Most race fans are lovers of horses.
But many people do not know the real joy of horse racing, simply because no one ever has shown them the surreally-beautiful Horse. No one ever has instructed them, how to approach a horse, to introduce themselves.
Or to understand that a deep nicker means that the horse is contented, and happy to be with you.
That makes me sad. Sad because, not only are they missing out on the majesty of the sport--they're being denied the deep Jungian connection to themselves, and to the ancestral connection to The Horse.
There's one key way to grow the sport of horse racing: put the emphasis on the word, horse.
NYRA does an extraordinary job of introducing fans and newbies alike to The Horse. Their (free) tram tours take off from the Clubhouse Entrance (Nelson Avenue), every half-hour during breakfast hours. These tours happen every day of the entire Saratoga racing season--and they are a gift. A gift not only to the ambitious souls who get up in the early hours to watch workouts and take the tours--but to the future of the sport as a whole.
Every time I see the tour guides in their NYRA polo shirts, leading a group of tram fans around the backstretch--my heart smiles. They're sharing history, passion, joy and the love of The Horse.
I see wide-eyed children and wide-eyed grandfathers, alike. A real Thoroughbred in person--is huge. And darned impressive. I remember well my first tram tour--jeez, was it 20 years ago, or 21? My dear Mother and I loved racing, and Mommy had discovered that we could witness the magical world "back there." We hopped on the tram, and--just like that, our lives changed. I'd been going to the races with Mommy since I was four, and I grew up riding Quarter Horses. But never had I met a Thoroughbred in person until that day, in the beauty of his own backyard.
NYRA and other racing authorities strive to introduce fans to The Horse, because they know that, without The Horse, obviously, there is no Horse Racing. Everyone I know at NYRA is a horse lover, through-and-through, and I'm sure it's the same at other racing organizations. We wouldn't be at racetracks all over the world, and we wouldn't do what we do--none of us, from presidents and trainers, jockeys, stewards, starters, grooms and hotwalkers to writers, photographers, documentary film makers--were it not for an uncontrollable, uncontainable passion for The Horse.
So here's the challenge. If you're a hardcore horse racing fan, and you love horses--please bring at least one person to the track this season.
Of course I'm hoping that you take them to Saratoga--but if you can't get to Saratoga, please take them to your home track.
Introduce that person to a horse, if you can. (Hint: most outriders are really nice women and men, and often will let you meet their horse when they're not actively working--in-between races. Ask them nicely. Ball up your hand into a fist. Gently offer your fist to the horse's nostrils, so that s/he can sniff you, and figure out that you're an OK person. Never touch a horse who isn't yours, and without permission of the horse's owner, BTW.)
If you and I each bring just one person to the races--and introduce them to The Horse--we will be doing our parts to assure that horse racing continues well into the next century, and beyond. That person, whom we converted, will become a fan and bring others, and so on.
The Challenge, Part Two:
If you're someone who attends the races, but does so for myriad reasons other than loving The Horse or understanding the sport--please join this challenge. You may be someone who goes for a day or so, just to bet without regard to the circumstances. (It wouldn't matter if you were betting on horses, pigeons or the date that your baby will be born. At that point, look yourself in the mirror and admit, it's just gambling.)
You may be a hard-core horseplayer--but you've lost touch with the first part of that phrase: horse.
Or you may be a member of that first category that we discussed: people who just don't know The Horse, or why the sport of racing them is important.
Whichever your category,
first, I urge you to read this poem by the late, great horseman, Paul Mellon. If you can read this poem without crying at the end and choking out the last 13 words--you're made of steel.
The Challenge is to read this poem now--and then spend the summer getting to know The Horse, and to really know horse racing.
Then, on September 4th--the day after Labor Day (here in the US)--Labor Day is Closing Day at Saratoga Race Course--read the poem again.
I can guarantee that, after a summer--or even one single day--of meeting a real, live horse, and going to the races with that new-found love for the species--you will not be able to read the poem without weeping, out loud.
And that, my friends, will be your baptism into the world, the sport, the culture, community and family of horse racing. Without The Horse, there is no horse racing.
Without you, a lifelong or brand-new lover of The Horse and fan of the sport--there is no future for horse racing.
Horse racing is the most thrilling sport on Earth because of the horses. But it's the most important sport because the humans and horses, working together, fulfill a need and a bliss that's as old as our respective species.
Sans further ado, here's the assigned poem. Enjoy, and many thanks to the estate of the late, great Paul Mellon:
An original poem by
The day my
final race is run
And, win or lose, the sinking sun
Tells me it's time to quit the track
And gracefully hang up my tack,
I'll thank the Lord the life I've led
Was always near a Thoroughbred.
I've had my
share of falls and knocks
Pursuing the elusive fox.
I've heard the stirring cry of hounds
From Melton to the Sussex Downs.
Each spring I ride a hundred miles
(My tail bright red, my face all smiles).
And I have
seen the thrilling pace
Of many a cutthroat steeplechase
And watched with breath and mind suspended
until a classic race has ended.
high days can end in pain,
Or in a bottle of champagne.
So if the downward course is steep
Where smoke and flames and devils leap
I'll hope I'm on a hellish steed
Running his heart out with no need
For voice or spurs or flailing whip
To guarantee he gets the trip.
But if about
the sixteenth pole
God should have mercy on my soul,
I hope He'll raise me to the clouds
Above the grandstand and the crowds
And there I'll take my ease, and wait
Behind the pearly starting gate.
before I break God's bread
Or buy a halo for my head
Or sink into a starry bed
Or say the prayers I should have said
Before the donuts, rolls, or coffees,
I'll find the secretary's office.
In my first
interview, of course,
I'll ask St. Peter for a horse.
He'll lead me down the heavenly sheds
Past miles and miles of Thoroughbreds
And say,"Since you've escaped Old Nick ...
They're on the house; just take your pick".
So when old
Gabriel's golden horn
Echoes from cloud to cloud each morn
And "It is post time" rings out clear
I will be ready with my gear;
My horse and I will not be late
(Though I'll be slightly overweight).
from every mortal sin
We'll gallop through celestial fields
Where neither mist nor mud conceals
The graceful movements of the horse,
The wide and green and endless course.
may think and I'll agree
That only God can make a tree,
Before God thought of trees, it's said,
His mind was on the Thoroughbred.