For two weeks in a row, I have been choking back tears while writing the Arlington stakes recap.
Last week, it was for the worst sort of reason: a freakish paddock accident that claimed the life of Apropos, the morning-line favourite for the Chicago Handicap.
I’m grateful that I didn’t see her fall, but still haunted by the aftermath I did see, before the screens went up. It’s a horrible reminder of how fragile life is, and how fragile horses are…as dazzling as My Option’s closing run was, as game as Flower Spell’s ability to hold second was, I couldn’t get my mind off the fact that Apropos had walked into the paddock minutes away from contending in a graded stakes, and left the paddock in a van.
This week, it was for the best sort of reason: an emphatic assertion by nine-year-old gelding Saint Leon that the five and a half furlongs on the Arlington Park turf between the starting gate and the finish line are his, and his alone, until someone can catch him. Again this year, no one could.
It was a long road for Saint Leon to even his first Arlington Sprint: $5,000 claimers at Mountaineer, an injury to his cannon bone, a year off. During his year off he found his way to the Michele Boyce barn, and his race record since speaks to the care she has taken with him. He has been running in allowance and stakes company in the last four years. He has particularly sparkled in turf dashes, and is six-for-six on the Arlington turf under Boyce. This streak includes the last three editions of the Arlington Sprint.
People wonder why I’m into horse racing. Horses are beautiful, and seeing them run fast is a lot of fun. Close finishes, big moves on the track, last-to-first closing runs…what unfolds on the track is thrilling, more thrilling in my eyes than any other sport. Even off the track, the lingering question of how to breed a champion racehorse is a fascinating puzzle. All of these are easy answers, and things I bring up when people ask me that question in casual conversation.
But, one of the other things that keeps me following the sport? It grabs my emotions. I’m so negative and jaded about so many other things in life, but horse racing is somehow different. There are certain humans in the sport who may frustrate me…but in the end, it’s all about the horses, and how can you not like a horse? I have my favourites, of course, for one reason or another. I have the ones who capture my imagination, the ones who ran races that are particularly memorable for me, the ones who have given me particularly endearing looks while they walk around the paddock. But, compared to anything else I’ve come across in life or in sport, it is the purest form of “rooting-for”. How can you root against a horse? How can you want anything for any of the horses but health, soundness, and a peppermint if they are being really, really good?
Whenever anything bad happens to a racehorse, I can’t help but feel sick. Whenever anything really good happens, when they put up a huge race or handle a rise up the class ladder with style, I can’t help but get beside myself with happiness. And, that’s why both Apropos and Saint Leon are such strong examples of this: they emphasize the whenever part. Neither of them are horses I followed specifically. I had heard of both of them before they entered into their recent races at Arlington, but had never written a piece about either of them, or spent an evening reading up on their histories.
And, yet, I’m emotionally invested no matter what. It’s crushing, it’s exhilarating, it’s complicated, and it’s a huge reason that I can’t set this sport aside.