It is a fine place to think, to sort, to wonder. From the corner seat of a darkened bar a man can rule his domain and consider the content of his lifetime, find answers or at least identify the questions, one of which returns for consideration annually in May.
It wasn’t where life went wrong or right that was lodged in his consciousness now that his was closer to the end than the beginning, but where it went … and why? The view over the lip of a glass can provide a sense of perspective that is both familiar and comfortable. An expanse of dark wood can be almost womblike, a good place to recall the slow horses he has owned and his reasons for returning thirsty time and again to a dry well. He had meandered for decades, place to place, chapter to chapter that formed this familiar circle. Everywhere he had been, it seemed, was a place he’d been before. In the spring, the season of renewal and rebirth, the road leads back to Kentucky.
The faces changed occasionally, but only occasionally until they began to disappear into the next world. The horses came and went, born of ancestry that is the perennial fruit of the bluegrass, those immortal in memory and eternal in pedigree. Some things — this one in particular — defy time.
For some reason not clear, his thoughts went back to Tim Tam, the first horse for which he rooted in a Kentucky Derby, his attention drawn to the colt on a snowy black-and-white Dumont television while watching “The Race of the Week” from Hialeah Park during that winter, which was the beginning of a long road. Perhaps it was no more than the alliterative name that caught the eye and then the admiration of an 11-year-old.
Tim Tam was trained by Jimmy Jones for Calumet Farm — as good as it could be in those days — and ridden by Ismael Valenzuela. He won the Preakness too, then broke a leg chasing the Triple Crown but finished the Belmont Stakes anyway. He could remember the disappointment of the day in June 1958 just as he remembers clearly would-be Triple Crown winner Charismatic standing forlornly on three legs beyond the wire at Belmont Park 41 years later.
The Kentucky Derby is about time and place and the accumulation of memories. The things he had seen and shared with now absent friends at the racetrack in Louisville spilled into the present each spring, the attention focused upon horses, which are pure of heart, incapable of stealth or dishonesty, and an unforgiving mile-and-a-quarter race that defines the breed, the sport and the men and women so devoted.
To those whose lives, choices and the horses that brought them to this place each May, the Derby is not just a race with a $2 million purse. It cannot be measured in currency. It is a grail, an obsession. Without it, this ancient game would be diminished and unrecognizable. It is symbolic of the bond between horse and human that predates civilization, integral to the racing life.
In the second decade of the 21st Century, the year in which the Derby will be run for the 138th time, organized racing is common to every civilized culture on Earth and some of questionable civility, an endeavor that blurs the lines of religious, political and ideological confrontation by bringing together people like-minded if only in this respect from every social and economic stratum who share the dream and ask a question, the answer to which is revealed to the few: What if a horse I owned won the Kentucky Derby? What would that feel like? Would I ever stop smiling?
Ownership of a Kentucky Derby winner is the real American Dream.
Chasing the answer to racing’s eternal question, which is revealed only in realization of the dream, is the essence of life at the track, considered again and again by anyone who has not given up, surrendered to overwhelming odds, traded uncertainty, romance and the perpetual dance with oblivion for the mundane trappings of security and good sense. The chase explains hundreds of thousands of lapses in judgment and poor investment decisions. There is no key, no map, manual, moment of enlightenment or epiphany when all truth is revealed except by the horse of a lifetime late in the afternoon on the first Saturday in May.
Horses of lifetimes belong to us all.
They returned from war in a snippet of jungle on the South China Sea to a nation torn and in search of a hero and saw Secretariat win the Derby, then the Triple Crown, and found an animal with the power to heal.
They had begun careers and started families by the time they watched Seattle Slew stand undefeated, draped in the traditional blanket of roses and a year later watched Affirmed hold off Alydar on the path to immortality that begins in Louisville. They lived moments that would seize their spirits and in everyone who saw those races linger still in the soul.
It is a question, of course, that has propelled the imaginative mind of every persuasion, mother of invention and occasionally of inspiration. It has driven scientists, poets, artists, scoundrels, gamblers; captains of commerce and industry, robber barons, civic leaders, discoverers, visionaries and despots. Theirs is a world in which all questions except the one central to the racing game result eventually in answers. But neither deductive reasoning nor genetic alchemy have ever produced a Kentucky Derby winner. That is the realm of fate and karma.
The minute prospect of living the dream has somehow tailored the game itself.
Racing in all its facets is deliciously uncertain, the triumphant moments fleeting, entirely temporary; the despair profound. A good horse, it is said, can come from anywhere but disappointment comes from everywhere. Only at the racetrack is an 80 percent failure rate considered success. At Churchill Downs, in May, only the few are blessed with the moment of clarity in which time stops, the stretch run unfolds in slow motion in the lengthening shadow cast by the landmark spires and the answer is revealed — my horse is going to win the Kentucky Derby — the eureka moment bestowed upon a mortal by a horse about to become immortal.
Still, every newborn foal is a Derby winner in someone’s wildest dreams, a million-to-one shot turned overnight sensation. Why not? We have seen them, again and again. The few, the horses of lifetimes, live forever in the present tense of consciousness for those who saw them run and remain unforgettable to the people who have successfully pursued racing’s ultimate objective: Spectacular Bid, Genuine Risk and Winning Colors; Woody Stephens, Charlie Whittingham, Jack Van Berg, Billy Turner, Laz Barrera, D. Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito and Bob Baffert; Eddie Arcaro, Bill Shoemaker, Angel Cordero, Laffit Pincay Jr., Pat Day — some gone, some still chasing the grail because once can never be enough, each a unique thread in the racetrack tapestry and lore of the Kentucky Derby, which provides for the common folk as well as the fabulously wealthy. The Derby is one of those things that money alone cannot buy.
Fate embraced an unlikely gelding bred in New York named Funny Cide, a group of high school chums who owned him and trainer Barclay Tagg. Smarty Jones took a wheelchair-bound Philadelphia automobile dealer and trainer John Servis to places of which they had dared only dream. But dare they did. Seattle Slew cost $17,000 when sold at auction. America’s race can be won by anyone who makes the decision to pursue to most outrageous, unlikely dream that can possibly come true. Those with lives tethered to the fortune of racehorses who do not awaken in springtime with the great Derby question on their minds face a measured future. Anyone who does has a puncher’s chance. At the racetrack, everyone is a dreamer whether in the cloak of eternal optimist or dour fatalist and the best day they will ever have is forever tomorrow.
The racing muse speaks loudly. It is responsible for every shady deal, every conspiracy and crime, the logic at the root of each betting decision, the stimuli of wild departures from reality and prudence. It has inspired artists of every discipline who have, beginning with those whose work has endured millennia on cave walls and those whose legacies survive in the ruins of ancient civilizations, stand in witness to the eternally entwined history of humans and their horses. It ignites a flame even in children who write sincere letters to the particularly heroic horses whose names filter into the mainstream of current events and public consciousness. The sudden outburst of speed, the purity of courage and poetry of equine grace whispers perhaps most sweetly to the young but speaks all the way to the grave. Between extremes of maturity anything is possible.
This is an enterprise at once violent and charmingly subtle, a balance of bravado and finesse as brutal as the third day of a binge, nuanced and fragile as antique lace. When the stars are favorably aligned and your meagerly bred horse blossoms into a stakes-class runner that brings the minions of Middle Eastern royalty to the doorstep with staggering offers; when a shred of light appears miraculously on the rail and your hopelessly trapped horse wins a race when all appeared lost; when the animal you have backed gets its nose down at the wire in the race that makes all the difference — when you get the money and life comes to a blissful standstill if only for the moment, there is an instant of clarity and understanding; all nature exists in harmonious balance and if only for an infinitesimal blip of time, there is peace on Earth. The next race raises the same questions, but the answers will be different and the renewed search for temporary truth no less sweetly alluring.
The cumulative subconscious response to racing’s central query is the life force that rules every aspect of the business and propels it to meet the demon of daily uncertainty. It is responsible for every mating, every decision to buy a young, untested yearling and each consideration made in the management of its frail and tenuous future. It explains why meagerly compensated people leave their beds at 4 a.m. to care for regal animals whose hearts are engorged with bloodlines that trace through the ether to the ancient Arabian desert. It lures young people bursting with possibility to the racing life at the expense of home, education and parental approval, leads them down precarious, serpentine career paths to lives that often lead nowhere but are never misspent.
All this — not so much a sport or an industry or a gambling game but life in a world of its own — revolves around a matter of minutes in May, when a field of 3-year-old horses is led to the post at Churchill Downs and the nation sings “My Old Kentucky Home,” then racing and the lives it embraces are defined in an explosion of glistening hide, thundering plated hooves and brightly colored silks that urgently circumnavigate the course, running headlong into a deafening cacophony while a nation waits to exhale. One will enter the pantheon of Derby winners and provide the rarest moment in the lives of people whose most outrageous dreams have brought them to this place and come true before our eyes. The rest of us will go on dreaming.
Another round, please.
Originally Posted on ESPN