The First Saturday in May

In the early days of May, a young girl’s thoughts turn to thoughts of horses.  In my own case, these were no dreams of prancing pretty ponies, but thoroughbreds, thundering down the homestretch at Churchill Downs. 

Only two of my grandparents lived into my own lifetime, and one of them died when I was only four or five, so to me, Granny–my mother’s mother–was special.  I only had her in my life until I was 11 years old.  I remember her for two things:  The first was passing on to me her love for crafts, as she taught me how to embroider and crochet. The second was an annual ritual. We’d gather at her trailer the first Saturday in May and watch the Kentucky Derby with her. It was in 1977 that I particularly started to pay attention–the year Seattle Slew won.  I began to learn about the Triple Crown races as Seattle Slew went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont, becoming the second Triple Crown winner of the decade.  The first had, of course, been the great Secretariat, who I had the vaguest of memories of from when he had won the Derby.
The next year, 1978, was special.  That year, two horses, Affirmed and Alydar, battled in all three Triple Crown races.  Alydar had been the favourite going into each series, but Affirmed had won the Derby.  I was definitely Team Affirmed.  He was a beautiful chestnut horse, less obviously powerful than Alydar, and was ridden by the young superstar jockey Steve Cauthen.  It was perhaps the single time I routed for anything involving the colour pink, the colour of the racing silks of Harbor View Farm.
But I did not watch the Derby at Granny’s trailer. We had lost her on April 5, just about a month before, after a visit to the hospital for gallbladder surgery had turned into something more.  I don’t really remember quite what it was–some sort of fistula.  I only vaguely remember the funeral. It didn’t quite seem real. I’m not sure whether that played into an obsession that would last two years in its most intense phase, but looking back, I am sure it did.
Affirmed and Alydar continued their legendary battle in the Preakness and the Belmont. In the Preakness, Affirmed beat Alydar by a neck.  In the Belmont, the grueling mile and a half race that had broken all but the best Triple Crown contenders, Affirmed and Alydar raced neck and neck for half the race, with their final mile the fastest in Belmont history.  I could barely stand to watch, but I was glued to the TV as they battled down the home stretch.  Alydar at one point nosed ahead, but Cauthen switched his whip hand and Affirmed surged back, winning the race by a nose. 
There would not be another Triple Crown winner until 2015.
I carried a good luck charm of a photo of Affirmed from Sports Illustrated mounted on a square of wood for years afterward.  It’s here in front of me on the desk as I type this.  I had a stuffed horse that looked like him.  He was my celebrity crush, and I eagerly followed the rest of his racing career. I plastered the walls and doors of my bedroom with covers and stories from Sports Illustrated about his races.  But he was joined by the great Secretariat, after reading William Nack’s book Big Red of Meadow Stable: Secretariat, the Making of a Champion.  Many girls go through a horsey phase, but mine was, I think, odd–because I identified so strongly with the horses, to the point of thinking of myself as one.  It was probably no great coincidence that the year of my greatest obsession was in the seventh grade, where I had extensive problems with relating to actual people.  I was certainly a weird kid;  this was not the age of My Little Pony, where cartoon horses are clearly meant to stand in for girls. 
The following year summer, my family vacationed in Kentucky.  We visited Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Horse Park. And somehow–I am still not sure how he did this–my Dad arranged a visit to Calumet Farms, where Secretariat was standing at stud. He was–and still is–the biggest celebrity I ever met, and I got to see him have a shoe changed and to feed him a carrot.  Other greats of racing–particularly the storied Northern Dancer–were also at the farm.  My dad could schmooze anyone, but I am still astounded that he just managed to phone them up and arrange a visit.
Even as my obsession gradually subsided, I still watched the Derby every year, and each time a horse also won the Preakness, I followed eagerly to see if we would see another Triple Crown winner.  (This happened thirteen times until American Pharoah finally won in 2015.)  Yesterday, far away from a TV, I watched my iPhone and refreshed it for updates until I saw that Justified–the horse I had picked–had won the race.  (I only found out later that he wore a red saddle cloth and a star on his jockey’s racing silks).  It’s a hard habit to break, and I have no intention of doing so.
But horse racing itself is a vastly different landscape than it was during the ’70s.  Pimlico the track where the Preakness is held, has been barely able to stay open.  Horses and jockeys are no longer celebrities in the United States to the extent they once were–so much of the serious money has gone abroad to the Arab world, where horse racing is still the sport of kings.  In recent years, movies about Seabiscuit and Secretariat have captured a little of the flavour of that earlier era, where racetracks were one of the few places where ordinary people could legally gamble. These days, casinos are everywhere, and tracks often have to add slots or gaming tables to remain afloat.  And the issues with horse racing that have always been present in its lower ranks, of horses being mistreated, or sold to slaughterhouses when they fail to perform, have not gotten any better.
But I still cannot resist the lure of Derby Day, of seeing such delicate power, such strong beauty, in motion, coming around that final turn.  There is nothing quite like it, and the memories it arouses are strong for me, as I picture myself sprawled in front of that black-and-white TV at my grandmother’s place.  And each year, on this day, the day after the Derby, I revel in the possibilities ahead–another Triple Crown, perhaps?  
We shall see.   

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