It was one of those nights, when I couldn’t get to sleep because my brain was working overtime with things I needed to write. And when I say, “need,” I don’t mean just deadlines for pieces for which I will be paid. I mean, “need,” as in, “I need chocolate”; “I need a fix”; “Yo te necesito.”
Writers need to write like riders need to ride.
I may have been caffeinecrazy: I knew what I wanted to say but couldn’t settle down enough to get it on the proverbial page before me. I was just plain exhausted: the words were in my head, but refused to translate through my digits.
Last night I had so much to write that I didn’t know where to start. There are things before me which should be read and edited for others. There are blogs to write; marketing peripherals to hammer out and editorial content concepts that I want to get down on paper before they fly like a vapor out of my brain and into the air.
So I simply went to sleep, knowing that the words would present themselves to me after Morpheus had cast his spell over me. I write best in my head, in my lucid-dreaming space.
I wrote a bit last night after I found sleep, but even better–I got organized in that netherland. I awoke at 6:11AM with the full list, and ready to rock on it. Even my Palm, without which I cannot move, isn’t as organized as my brain on sleep’s deep drug.
I awoke knowing that I wanted to write something about the Kentucky Derby–it is upon us, two days hence, you know. I didn’t want to write the statistics, predictions or other yawners. I knew there was a tale to tell, and, sure enough, it presented itself to me during the night.
Here it is. Today’s offering is Part One, a two-part series which will conclude tomorrow. One topic: females in my Life and their Kentucky Derby experiences–and how those experiences touched my being, and have brought me to today. I would not be a racing essayist without any one of these females, and the influence, encouragement or inspiration. Sans further ado, I present, “Every Day is ‘Women’s Day’ in Racing”:
* Mom. The first female in my Life who embraced the Kentucky Derby was my beloved, late Mother. ‘T’was she and my Grandmother who first put me onto a horse when I was four, and that same year took me to Green Mountain Park–a now defunct Thoroughbred racetrack in Pownal, Vermont. Every Kentucky Derby, Mommy would watch with rapt attention. She wept almost uncontrollably when the band in Louisville played, “My Old Kentucky Home”–I spent a great deal of my childhood thinking that my Mother was originally from Kentucky, for she was a tad too involved in that song for a mere New Yorker, participating in the ritual vicariously. Then I thought that perhaps she’d been there in a previous life.
I finally came to the conclusion that my Mother was so in love with horse racing and the golden apple of the Triple Crown that this song which ushered in Triple Crown season just tore her to shreds. She passed on that love for the sport to me, that passionate, I-can’t-explain-it-you-get-it-if-you-get-it obsession with The Sport of Kings. A title which made no sense to me, whatsoever, for everyone in my Life who loved the sport and participated was a woman, Queens, all. To me–because of my Mother, first–it is and will always be The Sport of Queens.
* Penny Chenery. Speaking of Queens. And speaking of the Kentucky Derby. One cannot Talk Derby to Me without the name, Penny Chenery being mentioned in hushed tones. For those of you who aren’t Thoroughbred racing fans; who were born after 1973 or were foaled on Mars–Penny (Helen B.) Chenery owned not one but TWO Kentucky Derby winners: Riva Ridge, who literally saved the farm with his victory in 1972, and–the following year–the inimitable Secretariat. Penny is Le Grande Dame of Racing, even though she’s as unassuming and kind–albeit, feisty, brilliant, opinionated and strong as they come. My association with Penny, I am blessed to report, goes far beyond that of a fan who loved Riva and Sexytariat.
You see, I went through my Life working and freelancing as a writer until seven years ago. In 2003, I met Penny Chenery on the phone through a strange set of circumstances that involved the Church of her childhood, young adulthood and of her heart–which it happens, I attended in the early 2000s. I won’t bore you with the details unless you email me and ask about them, ’cause it IS a heck of a story. But the short version is that Penny called me in response to an email I’d sent in early July, 2003. I nearly fell down when I picked up the phone. A 45-minute conversation ensued–that began with the fact that she went to Smith and I to Mount Holyoke. (You’ll get this if you’re an Alumna of either school, or live in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.) At her invitation, we met in her box at Saratoga on Opening Day in 2003, and discussed my vocation as not just a writer, but as a racing writer. I gave her a coffee mug with an image of the Church etched on the front, and my portfolio. She promised to read the portfolio–I thought, “Sure.” She called me the next morning at 7:30, and said that she’d read it, loved it–and things happened from there. She was the first person to encourage me to pursue my goal of becoming The Oprah of Horse Racing. She got me. She liked my writing, and thought that there was a place in Thoroughbred racing where I’d fit in–or, if I didn’t fit in, I’d kick down a door and force my way in. A woman of great personal power and patron of women in racing, Penny Chenery is my Mentor–for which I will always be grateful. I cannot watch replays of any of Secretariat’s Triple Crown races without thanking him; Riva Ridge and the great woman who not only saw potential in those two horses, but in every female who craves a career in this sport, and me in particular. I love Penny Chenery, and always will.
* Claire Conmee. If I’ve told you this story before, please forgive. If not, read on, MacBeth. In 2005, I was on the phone with my friend, Kathleen Conmee Breault. Kathie lamented that her Mother, Claire, had never-yet been to the Kentucky Derby. And Claire wasn’t old-old, just old. Getting on in years. Had had myriad health problems, and risen above. And getting to the Kentucky Derby was one of Claire’s big Life Dreams, which, it seemed, would never happen. This was in February. I hung up with Kathie, and looked at the Churchill Downs ‘site. Saw that the Derby for 2005 was already sold out. (Go figure. Rock stars; 15-minutes-of-fame tartlets and nepotism + Big Bucks got all the tickets, it seemed.) I dropped an email to Churchill Downs, and asked if there might be just three seats, ANYwhere, for the 2005 Kentucky Derby. Just three. One had to be wheelchair accessible, for Claire would need that. We didn’t care if the seats were on the roof at the extreme top, in the back–all that mattered was that Claire would be at the Kentucky Derby, and able to see something.
You see, Claire Conmee was no ordinary older lady. Claire was a lifelong racing fan–and an encyclopaedia of racing information and deep knowledge. No one currently alive, or dead, knows more than Claire knew. She’d fallen in love with racing in 1948 when Citation won the Triple Crown. She had a crush on Eddie Arcaro. She could ‘cite dates, times, statistics like no one I knew. And she highly resented Secretariat for coming along–25 years later!–to unseat Citation. The first time we had this conversation, she referred to “G–damned Secretariat!” (Kathie and I laughed, which didn’t go over well, either.)
So here we had the one person on the entire planet who should have been treated like Racing Royalty, who couldn’t even get a ticket as tempus fugited–time flew. We didn’t know how many years Claire, with her myriad health situations, had left. So I dropped a line.
Twenty minutes later–I kid you not–a kind-voiced woman called from the ticket office at Churchill Downs. She identified herself as Jan. She said that she’d received my email, and that they had three tickets for us, wheelchair-accessible. The tickets were $145–cheap by Derby standards. I sent the check, she sent the tickets. I looked online to see where we’d be sitting, and by the looks of things, we were in the front row of a section in the Clubhouse. Sweet. (When I envision the front row in the Clubhouse, of course I think of the layout of the Saratoga Clubhouse.)
WE three set out for Kentucky–for a grand roadtrip–a few days prior to the Derby. Packing Kathie’s yummy egg-salad sandwiches (featuring butter on the bread, even better!), we Big Gulped our way for a one-day powerdrive to Kentucky. We arrived, and a few days later, were ready for The Kentucky Derby.
I could spend paragraphs to describe the trip–all the funny and cool things that happened on the way down to Kentucky, and the first few days we were in residence. And I will tell you that, when we drove up to the sacred gate of Calumet–which was, at that time, shuttered–we got a photo of Claire standing outside the red gate, holding onto the painted cast-iron, demanding to the Universe that she be let in to her rightful place. (Calumet was the home of her treasured Citation and of our shared passion, Alydar–and Claire coulnd’t get into the gate.) Claire never got through the gate at Calumet, but it makes for a great memory. Especially today, as I write this, two days from the 2010 Kentucky Derby.
I could regale you with more tales of our trip, but I want to get to the heart of this tale.
The day before the Derby, Jan from Churchill Downs called and told us to meet an escort at 7:30AM at Gate 17. Rockin’. We rode to Churchill Downs in our hotel’s van–which was taking several other people to the track early on Derby Day. We walked about three steps to Gatge 17, and were greeted by the sweetest gentleman in the world. He was wearing a red jacket, and looked very official. He had a wheelchair for Claire–Jan had told us not to bother to bring one, they’d have “something.” They sure did: a lovely wheelchair, with a handsome older gentleman to wheel our Alpha Mare right to her seat.
As we went through the Clubhouse, we passed the section where we assumed we’d be sitting. We wheeled out onto the apron–which at Saratoga is a lot of space and nice benches. Not so at Churchill Downs: at the Downs, the apron is filled with boxes and box seats. As we walked–and wheeled–closer and closer to the rail, I asked our Valet, “Where are we going?”
“To your seats! You’re in the front row of Section 117, at the rail. Near the finish line!”
Kathie, Claire and I nearly croaked collectively. We were shocked out of out minds, that for a mere $145, the Ticket Office at Churchill Downs had given us the Best Seats in the House. We were at the rail, just before the famed Churchill Downs’ finish line. Our seats were so close–and Claire’s wheelchair was put in where our hosts had already removed a chair to accommodate her–that our knees touched the fence of the rail. We rested our programs on the rail during the course of the day. We could reach out and touch the horses during The Walkaround, on their way into the Paddock.
Why anyone thinks that Millionaires’ Row is a Big Deal, I don’t know. Why would anyone want to be six stories high, and to the south–nowhere near the horses who make it happen–just so they can brag that they’d spent hundreds of dollars to stand next to Snoop Dogg? I don’t get it: our seats were the best in the house. For a moment in time, we were Racing Royalty. Claire had finally been given the respect she’d been due since 1948–that of a fan who loves the horses so deeply, and knew them so intimately, that she could identify Alydar by the hairs on his withers. A fan at this level is far more than a casual observer or horse racing: she was very much a part of the sport, itself–for without fans like Claire, there is no horse racing.
Claire was, in a very real sense, Home. (Ironically enough, none of the three of us cried during “My Old Kentucky Home,” because when you’re in the front row and 160,000 people are screaming the song behind you–you can’t hear the brass of the band. We only knew that the ritual had ended because the lyrics blanked off the tote board.)
I spent the entire day watching Claire as she watched the races. My eyes and heart were trained on her during every moment of each Derby ritual. Kathie and I cried buckets, as we observed Claire taking in this experience, this once-in-a-Lifetime experience. There’ll be other Kentucky Derbies for me, possibly for Kathie. This was Claire’s one shot, and we are eternally grateful to God for opening the doors that led to that day in a box so close to the track, itself, that, as Claire observed–we could smell the horses’ breath. That, for a real race fan, is the Kentucky Derby. Millionaires’ Row isn’t for fans of the sport, for lovers of horses. The Row is for those who want to be seen. Those who want it known that they spent an obscene amount of money to be removed from the action. If you want to be photographed for “Us” magazine–secure your seat, now, for Millionaires’ Row in 2011. If you want to see the Kentucky Derby–give me a call, let’s Do It Right, and experience it from the perspective of people who love horses and jockeys more than the flash of paparazzi lightbulbs.
So I spent the day watching Claire, and would give my eyeteeth for the opportunity to do it again this year. I don’t care if we saw the Derby from a 13″ black-and-white TV in a Washington County tap room. The idea would be to spend just one more Kentucky Derby Day with the woman who, more than any horseplayer I’ve ever known, embraced every nuance of the animals and the sport. Just one more Derby Day with Claire. But that won’t happen, except in the sense that the dead are always with us, observing and, hopefully, aiding.
Claire died last year, not from any of the illnesses that had assaulted her to no avail for many years prior. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did. A friend in the industry acquired a beautiful black-and-white photo of Alydar, whom Claire loved so dearly–as did I and all her children. I made prints and gave one to each of her kids. We buried one of the pictures in the box–we buried Alydar with Claire. We are certain that they met almost immediately: the massive, golden gates of Heaven opened wide for that get-together, ironically, where the red gate on Versailles Road would not.
We all still ache–her four children; beautiful grandchildren and friends who loved her well. I will never again mark the Kentucky Derby without thinking about Giacomo’s Derby win in 2005, and Claire’s smiling face that day. Or the numbers, 9-1-4. I may tell that story to you at another time.
So on Saturday I will raise a Mint Julep to Claire Conmee, and thank her for giving me the greatest Kentucky Derby experience of my Life. I’ve had only two Derbies so far, but–unless one day I own a horse who’s in the Derby, and I receive the red roses, myself–nothing will ever match the joy that Claire shared with Kathie and me that hot Kentucky day five years ago. Thank you, Claire–you are one of my Kentucky Derby Women, for, indeed, you epitomize everything good for which this sport stands.
END PART ONE
FRIDAY, 30 April: PART TWO.
Full Moon, courtesy of NASA.
Secretariat, courtesy of Secretariat.com]