saying goodbye for the summer…

Here in Chicago, we are lucky: between Arlington in the summer and Hawthorne in the spring and the fall, we have live Thoroughbred racing for ten and a half months out of the year.  It hardly feels like the end of a season at this point, although it is in some sense.  The Arlington meet ended this past Sunday; racing resumes at Hawthorne on Friday afternoon.

I had been to Arlington a handful of times before this year.  My very first trip to a racetrack was a visit to Arlington back in 2007, and I had made it out there a handful of times over the ensuing years.  However, it was not until after going to the Arlington Million last year that I stopped being an occasional racegoer and started being a regular one.  After the thrill of the Million last year, I went to Arlington twice more that meet (including on Arlington-Washington Futurity Day), and then made my first foray to Hawthorne on Hawthorne Derby Day last October.

A year later, horse racing is a far bigger part of my life than it was then.  It has gone from something I read about late in the night to something I spend most of my waking hours reading, writing, and thinking about.  I started Blinkers Off almost on a lark back in January, since Twitter seemed a bit constrained.  Since then, it is hard to imagine my life without writing about horse racing, or without being around the sport as much as I possibly can.

Local racing, of course, is not over.  The Hawthorne fall meet starts Friday, and I could not be more excited about it.  Still, before my energies shift completely to 35th and Cicero, it seems a good time to look back at a few of my favourite moments of the Arlington season.  Some of my favourite moments I have already covered in longer form: seeing Please Explain (my favourite horse from the Oaks trail this year!) in person, falling head over heels for the big bay Dream Seeker, Saint Leon’s third straight Arlington Sprint victory, Istanford going wire-to-wire in the Arlington Classic (GIII).  Still, there is one story from the summer I have not written about here yet.  It was the biggest highlight of the Arlington meet, and did not even happen on a race day.

Every time I go to the track, I spend a significant time squeeing excitedly about how adorable the horses are, and how much I want to pet them, how much I want to get right up close to them.  I have ridden horses a couple of times in my life, but have not done so since I was twenty.  Part of the reason the paddock is such a thrill is because it’s the closest that a typical urban dweller like me can get to horses in the flesh.

I took the week leading up to the Arlington Million off of work, and went to morning workouts every day.  Morning workouts became one of my favourite things: every morning now, I’m a little sad that I’m not on that 5:55am train out to the track in order to watch the horses work.  It’s a beautiful thing…horses running everywhere, but without the distractions of betting, or running around between the rail and the paddock, or large crowds.  It was similar to the paddock, in a sense…the horses often came by the outer rail, and I was so close I could almost touch them.

That Tuesday morning, I was hanging out by the winner’s circle, and struck up a conversation with an awesome woman named Mary.  She is down in the winner’s circle at Arlington every morning, calling up to the clocker who is working, and how long they’re going for the recorded work.  We were talking horses, and she asked me if I had ever been to the backstretch before.  I never had.  She asked me if I wanted to go back after workouts — and, of course I wanted to!  She mentioned that one of the horses back there, Aly’s Bluffing, really liked bananas…and actually called her husband (trainer Rey Aguirre) to ask if there was a banana back at the barn.  Yes, there was a banana for Aly.

Workouts ended.  I went back there, and Mary introduced me to Rey.  He told me that he had seen me around Hawthorne before, and I had seen him as well, but we had never actually met.  They introduced me to Aly’s Bluffing first.  Aly’s Bluffing is a four-year-old gelding.  His name sounded very familiar when Mary said it, and it turned out I had actually been at Hawthorne on the day he finished second as a 52/1 shot.  And at that moment, I was standing right outside his stall with a banana in my hand.  I was very nervous feeding the banana to him, because I had never fed a horse so much as a peppermint before…even though horses are bigger and stronger than I am, the last thing I wanted to do was cause trouble on the backstretch.  I think Aly’s Bluffing was just happy to have a banana, though…he munched on it happily, and was very nice about letting me pet him.

Across the row of stalls was Shesmorethanatiger, a seven-year-old mare who is definitely the grande dame of the barn.  I had also seen her race a few times at Hawthorne, making it very exciting that I was up close to her.  She was looking out of her stall as I gave Aly the banana…waiting her turn, but looking like she was wondering when she would get some attention.  Once the banana was gone, Rey gave me some mints that I could feed to her.  Just like Aly’s Bluffing, she was very nice about eating them…excitedly taking the mints from my hand, but without the slightest bit of aggression toward me.  I was surprised…they were both a lot gentler than I expected a racing Thoroughbred to be.

There was a third horse back in the barn, Khayoor.  I had never seen him race, and they had actually just claimed him out of a maiden race a few days before I went back to the barn.  He was a lot more keyed-up than either of the other two horses I met.  Instead of adorably hoping for another mint after eating one, as both gelding Aly’s Bluffing and mare Shesmorethanatiger did, Khayoor was a little more…aggressive.  He never bit me, but he did continue trying to nosh on my hand.  Mary and Rey explained it was because he was still an intact colt, though he was scheduled to be gelded that coming Thursday.  Hopefully that all went well for Khayoor; he returned to the worktab on October 1 for the first time since I met him, and hopefully I will get to see him at Hawthorne this meet.

After hanging out with the horses, Rey showed me his office.  There were posters of horses everywhere.  My memory of exactly what they said was fuzzy, but I distinctly remember him pointing out one poster, one that made a very clear link between horses and happiness.  I couldn’t agree more, and that morning was everything I love about the racetrack, all in one morning.  I got to be around beautiful, sweet horses.  It was fun to see them in a more laid-back environment, just hanging out at the barn, instead of when they were keyed up and ready to race.  Just as excellent, I met two very friendly people who love horses.

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