Tra-lee, tra-la, ’tis Derby Day! The Kentucky Derby, the Thoroughbred horse race that comes packin’ over 100 years of history, lore, rituals and fanatics. With many thanks to the owners of CDI, we acknowledge that this is the one day every year when we’re guaranteed that, even those who don’t care about horse racing–will at least turn on NBC to see the race, itself. You never know: a casual observer the first Saturday in May could end up a devoted fan of the sport by the Saratoga meet. One never knows what will spark the imagination: the flash of light in a horse’s eye; “The Call to the Post,” played with great pomp and reverence; “My Old Kentucky Home,”–for good or for bad, the song evokes something in almost everyone. It may be the view of a jockery, perched atop a gleaming Thoroughbred, the horse’s muscles rippling in the Louisville sunshine…
Whatever it is, the Kentucky Derby is an event that has the great potential to turn interlopers into fans, owners and armchair handicappers. Something about this day is electric with possibilities. It cannot be denied that public relations and marketing play a role–and not always a good example. (The contest to be the most obnoxious partier in the infield = Not Such a Good Idea, for example.)
The Derby–like all horse racing–also has tremendous potential to humble the mighty–not just the horses. Not just the jockeys, owners, trainers.
Those “mighty” to whom I refer are…the bettors.
There are various styles of betting: there are those who put $2 on a horse, with no knowledge of either the horse or how to handicap. These, I report with bile in my mouth, are the people most likely to take home a huge trifecta. Beginners’ Luck.
There are those who handicap, and are darned good. They may bet $2 or $200, but they keep it in perspective. They’re smart, savvy and know horses and the training styles incorporated to create the equine athletes’ careers.
And then there are the inveterate gamblers–those for whom this is not a sport, not a game, not an opportunity to have fun and actually enjoy one’s self.
These people are gamblers: it’s not that they’re horse racing obsessives who happen to bet a ton of money on a horse. These are people who would bet on what time their own Grandfather dies. They bet on NASCAR, football, horses and golf. They may trek to Atlantic City of Vegas, to visit the tables. These are not the people pumping quarters into a VLT at the local Racino: a quarter isn’t risk-enough. The adrenalin rush comes from putting an enormous amount of money on the line and taking a spin. This is why Roulette, Craps and Blackjack all work for the inveterate: no restrictions to mere quarters. You can put down the mortgage for your house at a Roulette table, and that’s just fine.
The thing that these big bettors forget, the thing that I find laughable–the thing that every handicapper worth her or his salt knows is that–and read this slowly, and deliberately, now:
A. Horse. Is. Not. A. Roulette. Table.
A horse is a living, breathing, sentient being. A horse has feelings, emotions and thoughts about whether or not s/he wants to work today.
These are not large cardboard boxes covered with hair.
These are beings who can feel love, anger, sadness, grief and joy. They are capable of giving affection, and showing when they are frustrated.
Horses try to communicate with humans all the time, every day–many humans are just too stupid or too busy to bother to slow down and LISTEN. It is easy to tell if a horse doesn’t want to race on a particular day: all one need do is read her/his body language, and honour that decision. Better to scratch a horse who doesn’t want to race than to lose a horse because he ran, aggravated or sore.
I’m thinking about a particular race that I witnessed a couple of years ago. I consider myself to be very blessed to witness the situation, because I learned a great deal about horse psychology. This race featured six horses. The horse in the 5-hole acted out, ended up sitting down. His jockey slid off, and the horse was scratched. They removed his tack, and walked him back to the barn.
But the thing that tickled me wasn’t this horse getting a rest, it was the horse in the 6-hole. Karen and I made notes that Number Six was carefully observing everything that had transpired in the 5-hole. Number Six was big, beautiful and gray–and sharp as a tack. He watched the drama. He noticed everything–when Number Five was neighing, he was probably telling Number Six why he was upset. It wasn’t that much of a drama, just a horse who didn’t want to race that day. He was upset, but no insane. He figured out how to convince the humans around him that he might lose his mind–maybe even kill the jockey!–if he wasn’t scratched. Pretty smart.
Number Six saw this. Number Six had a constitution of steel. He stood, stock-still, in his last position in the gate while Number Five gently “lost it.” Number Six stood still, but he kept turning his head just enough so that he could see Number Five, and the result of Number Five’s activities. (Reminder: Thoroughbreds’ eyes are squarely on the sides of their heads. They have monocular vision–they see two different views simultaneously. They can see 358 degrees, with one degree–their blind side–each in the front and back. A Thoroughbred doesn’t have to turn its head to see what’s happening on the left side–but Number Six appeared to enjoy the play in stall #5.
As soon as Number Five was out of the gate; de-tacked and began walking off the track–Number Six looked around, side-to-side, and then–he sat down. That’s it, he sat down in his stall, forcing his jockey off. He knew that he had a very small window during which he could scratch himself–with Number Five out of the race, the gate starters and other horses were eager to hit it. Number Six watched every second of that episode, and at precisely the right moment (when the other horse was clearly out of the race)–Number Six SAT DOWN. That’s it. End of story. “Scratch me, I’m goin’ home.”
We humans laughed: we’d seen the wheels turning in that gray horse’s head. We knew that he was carefully thinking about what was happening, and how he, too, could go home, get a nice bath and be fed–all without working!
(God forbid that the news of this brilliant tactic spread among the shedrow: the barns will turn into spas filled with fat, lazy horses who smoke cigarettes and drink Saratoga Water from blue bottles while getting a mani-pedi and watching “Days.”)
So, yes, horses think. Anyone who doesn’t believe this, please step away from the horse.
If you think that God made a 1,200-pound animal and DIDN’T give it a brain to control that enormous body and energetic potential–I implore you to think again. A half-ton animal with no brain and no reasoning power would be the most dangerous animal on Earth. All animals have a brain of some sort, or at least a central nervous system. The larger the animal, the more the need for reasoning. (Think elephants, and the fact that they cry when a member of their herd dies, and they hold a “wake” the deceased.)
Now think about a horse–Thoroughbreds are not the largest breed, certainly. Without a brain–and the gentlest of spirits–Percherons could kill every person in their paths.
Horses need brains.
Horses have brains.
The ones who lack reasoning skills when adrenalin mixes with, oh, say, alcohol and ego–are humans. The inveterates who lose their wad of cash and go berserk. You’ve seen it, and if you haven’t–I am envious. It’s sad, really. I’m thinking about the bettors who go to simulcasting on beautiful, sunny days: there are actual horses, racing on an actual racetrack, right across the street, but like the stereotypical computer geek, inveterates are holed up under fluorescent lighting in a large room with no windows and not a real horse within sight.
Bettors of this stripe have no interest in horses, only in what betting on the horses may do for them. And that is profoundly sad.
They’ll never know the soft nicker of a horse as that being approaches for a kiss. They’ll never
learn how to read a horse, and how to admonish a “biter.” If the inveterate doesn’t win, he’s out and on to his next game of chance.
But before he leaves in a huff, the inveterate swears, screams, throws down his losing ticket. He’d jumped up from his chair, words that begin with the letter, F, and the prefix, “Mother.” spewing from his enraged mouth. He blamed the jockey. He blamed the horse. He blamed the other horse, who cut off the horse of choice. They’re all “stupid,” “idiots”–everyone who participated in the race is a moron. (He’s usually one of those who, even though he may not be an “old man,” thinks old and throws out axioms about “glue factories,” thinking that he’s being funny in his bitterness. He’s not funny, or attractive or smart. He’s just sad.)
Eveyone is to blame in this scenario…except, of course, for the guy who put down $500 on a sport that involves sentient beings and risk.
For some reason, the inveterate is without blame for the loss. This, I have never been able to figure out. Everyone on the track–right down to the landscaper who didn’t cut the grass to a 1/16″-inch specification that the bettor would like–is to blame. Ego, adrenalin and beer have never produced a business decision based on Wisdom. But the inveterate can’t blame himself, so everyone around him catches the flak when close inspection of one’s soul is the logical next step. (A rule of thumb: if you keep losing large sums of cash, and endangering your relationships along with your health–on a sport that involves betting on living beings who may not agree with you [but who have far more control over the situation than you)]–you might want to back off. Stop and think about what you’re doing, and how many lives can be negatively affected by your behaviour.)
If not your behaviour in toto, but at least today. What is served by jumping up and down and screaming obscenities at a horse who can’t hear you? (And who wouldn’t care, even if he COULD hear you.)
I ask you, horseperson to horseperson, to keep some perspective this Kentucky Derby Day. Everything in moderation is a good idea. Real horsepeople aren’t usually the ones who bet the farm, because we know that this IS a game of chance. That it IS just a game. A game that we love, a game that thrills us to the core–but, if at the end of the day you find yourself broke because you gambled away your paycheck–then this beloved game has become something hideous, and bad.
Have a wonderful Kentucky Derby Day! Have a Mint Julep, if you are so inclined. Don a chapeau like the late, great Dixie Carter and feel like a million bucks. Have fun
with your friends, whether you’re at Churchill Downs or an OTB down the street. Eat something delicious, and definitely put a couple of bucks on Seabiscuit.
But please don’t let the betting–and the frantic calculations about how much you “could” win–cloud your thinking. Kentucky Derby Day is a day to celebrate our sport, and the horses and humans who make it happen. It is a day to remind ourselves that we who work in horse racing are most-blessed. It is a day that can kick off the rest of the racing year with joy, anticipation and determination to make this the best, most secure sport in America–and the world.
Today can be a day of great joy and camaraderie. Or it can dissolve into a blur of disappointment, anger and self-loathing. The choice is up to you–to me–to we, the horse lovers, owners, trainers, handicappers, writers, grooms, hotwalkers, and yes, the bettors.
If you can’t afford to flush it before you walk up to that window–don’t take it with you. Ask yourself before approaching the teller, if losing this money will make you a horrible person and an embarrassment to your friends and family.
If the answer is yes, then back away from the window.
If the answer is no–then have a blast! Enjoy that rush of the last two seconds, as the horses come screaming down the track. Will you lose? Will you win? If your horse doesn’t come in first, but you’re cool with losing the money–then you’ve already won, a much more important race than the Kentucky Derby or any other race.
If you know yourself, you’ve won the Race of Life.
Run fast, turn left!
Churchill Downs, courtesy of Churchill Downs
Charitable Man, courtesy of Cathleen Duffy
Aqueduct Gate with Greys/Roans, courtesy of NYRA and Adam Coglianese
Twylight Cocktails, courtesy of All Play Stable
The Late, Brillaint Dixie Carter, courtesy of DixieCarter.com
Thank you all!]