By Ed McNamara
It’s our national festival of self-indulgence, a day dedicated to food, family and football. America’s creation myth sanctifies Thanksgiving, so gluttony not only gets a pass but is demanded.
Why not invite another of the seven deadly sins to the party? Greed’s favorite son is gambling, and besides making a three-team NFL parlay, horseplayers can feast away from the table. Five North American racetracks – Aqueduct, Laurel, Churchill Downs, Fair Grounds and Golden Gate – offer Thanksgiving cards that begin from 11:15 to noon local time, with Charles Town starting at 7 p.m. Del Mar canceled early because of a forecast for heavy rain, washing out a brunch featuring unlimited mimosas and Bloody Marys, live races and simulcasts. Ah, a rare dreary day where The Turf Meets The Surf.
Aqueduct and Churchill will kick off three-day Thanksgiving stakes fests. Fair Grounds will begin its 148th season in New Orleans, where the good times always roll and no excuse for a celebration is needed. There’s never a day off anywhere for gambling, which needs no official holiday.
New Yorkers can make a Turkey Day pilgrimage to deliciously seedy Aqueduct. The Big A’s card is anchored by the $200,000 Fall Highweight Handicap (G2), perfect for a day of putting on pounds. Feel free to go if you’re willing to risk hearing a snippy relative say “Thanksgiving is all about being with family, so just this one day, why couldn’t you stay away from the track?”
The Fall Highweight is a throwback in an era when American-based horses rarely lug more than 126 pounds. This year’s top weight is Firenze Fire with 134, meaning Irad Ortiz, Jr. must carry roughly 20 pounds of lead in his saddle. The protruding guts of many Big A patrons weigh at least that much, creating Fat Thursday camaraderie among man and beast.
An internet account is the convenient and family-friendly way for Thanksgiving action, but Aqueduct offers unique atmosphere. Instead of sneaking off to the upstairs bathroom with your smartphone to see if you can stay alive in a Pick 4, you can head for the windiest parking lot this side of Manitoba.
New York is the world capital of diversity, and Aqueduct’s grandstand is racing’s version of the United Nations General Assembly. Beneath the TV monitors on the second floor are souls of every race and so many ethnicities. In midstretch, as they root in a slew of accents and languages, you recall the Old Testament tale of the Tower of Babel. All yearn for the same outcome: a winning ticket. “One time! One time!” In the words of singer John Mellencamp, “Ain’t that America something to see?”
This scene wasn’t what the folks from the Mayflower envisioned way back when, but you can’t say the Fall Highweight Handicap isn’t a grand American tradition. Run for the first time in 1914, its winners include Hall of Fame mare Ta Wee and all-time great riders Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack and Angel Cordero Jr. Granted, a 105-year-old race doesn’t seem old considering the Pilgrims arrived more than 400 years ago, but this is the New World.
(Fun factoid: The 1926 Fall Highweight winner was none other than Powhatan, named for the father of Pocahontas. All right, maybe a stretch, because the dad and the daughter were involved with the early English colonists in Virginia, not Massachusetts, but still worth mentioning.)
Enough of all this obscure history, you might be saying, and do I like anything in the Fall Highweight? I won’t be making the 125-mile round trip from Long Island, but I will be playing from home. Favored Firenze Fire will run for trainer Jason Servis, who can be thankful for another very successful season despite the historic disqualification of Maximum Security in the Kentucky Derby. I’ll be on second favorite Recruiting Ready, who looks like the main speed.
The Fall Highweight will go off at about 2:50 p.m., roughly an hour after the start of the family meal. The host will subtly excuse himself from the table and slip off to watch it, trying to increase my internet account after expanding my waistline. From sea to shining sea, this is what patriotic American horseplayers must do.