Picks and Ponderings: Life, Death, and Words

Tonight was ChicagoNow’s Blogapalooz-Hour: everyone at ChicagoNow gets a topic, and we have an hour to write to that topic and publish a post.  Tonight’s topic?

“Write about a book or publication that is special to you or has had a big impact on your life.”

One piece came to mind.  As much as I wanted to write about…anything else, anything less catastrophic, anything less sad, I couldn’t do it.  The piece of horse racing writing that comes to my mind more than any other is not a happy one, but this topic compelled me to write about it.

ranking Classic Empire

For the first few weeks of the NTRA three-year-old poll, Classic Empire sat atop.  The first ballot came before the Holy Bull.  After his flat third the Holy Bull, most voters dropped him from the top slot…but I kept him on top.  Yes, Irish War Cry was sharp in victory, and McCraken picked right up where he left off when he won the Sam Davis.  Even with these talented contenders, Classic Empire’s two-year-old year was so good that he deserved a mulligan.

But, word came out within the last week that his foot abscess hadn’t healed up yet, and Classic Empire would miss the Fountain of Youth as a result.

Was I willing to give him another one?  I had to sleep on it.

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a scene from a friendly track

The first word that comes to mind when describing Tampa Bay Downs is friendly.  I got that feeling when I visited the track last year.  Strangers would come up to me to talk horses, and by the end of the weekend, I felt comfortable striking up some equine small talk with whoever happened to be next to me at the rail.

I returned to Tampa Bay Downs this week, and it took no time to confirm that this friendly spirit still fills the track.  After all, if you lose your ticket, there’s no place you’re more likely to get it back than this one.

Just before Thursday’s second race, I headed to the paddock.  I came to look at the horses, and lingered long after the post parade went off because classy grey Kasaqui was schooling in the paddock.  I expected it to be quiet there, since most people gravitated back toward the grandstand to rejoin their friends and get a bet in.

A woman with a ticket in her hand walked up to a security guard posted at the trackside entrance to the paddock.  She let the guard know that the ticket had been cast aside, pointing with her other had toward where she had seen it flutter to the ground.  She explains to him that she had not seen who dropped it.  After talking for a few moments, they decide that the ticket may have been left by one of a group of horseplayers about twenty feet down the rail.

The guard walks down the rail with the ticket, and asks the group whether any of them had dropped the ticket.  They looked — no one had.  They checked the ticket — none of them had even played that horse in the upcoming race.  The guard walked back over to the woman, who still stood near the paddock gate.  They resumed discussion of the ticket’s provenance.

Suddenly, the guard.  “I know why none of them had that horse — look!  The 3 scratched!”  The woman turns to the infield tote board, and finally notices the empty space where Nite of the Hunter’s odds would have been.  The guard continued, “he should be able to get his $10 back!”

As post approached, the woman walked back toward the grandstand to join her friends.  She left the ticket with the security guard.  He kept his post at the gate.  He furrowed his brow, beginning to wonder how he would find the owner of the tossed ticket.  It wasn’t a winner…but after all, $10 beats ticket confetti any day, and its owner would appreciate having it back.

more twilight racing!

Yesterday, Hawthorne posted on their Facebook page that post times will be a bit later than usual through March of this year: 4:10pm first post.

I can’t wait!

Part of it is personal, of course.  I love evening racing, racing under the lights.  Perhaps that’s because my first time visiting Hawthorne was a night card (that sloppy, marshy Hawthorne Derby day in 2013!).  Maybe it’s because I, unlike so many horse lovers, have always been a night owl.  Evening racing fits how I am wired.

But, it’s more than personal.  It’s an attempt to fill a slower spot in horse racing’s daily schedule.

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notes on defining the “ten best”

This year is my first as a voter in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred and Top Three-Year-Old polls.  We get guidelines for how to vote: involving talent, performance, the final poll reflecting a likely champion.  But, there is still a lot of room for voting philosophy to develop within that — as well there must be, as even the most detailed of voting instructions will never provide a true formula for how to rank the top ten horses in training.

The three-year-old division is, at least, a bit more straightforward.  Age, at least, holds constant.  For better or worse, the poll tends to center Classic prospects, controlling for surface and distance as well.

In the all-ages poll?  It requires comparing horses of different ages, sexes, surfaces, distances.  As someone whose philosophy has so often leaned toward appreciating them each for what they are, ranking a top ten all-ages list bent my brain.

Never will voting be easy…but never will voting be as difficult as it was this week for the all-ages poll, I think.  It was my first list of the year, my first list ever, the first time I had to shape an amorphous concept of “best horses of the year” into a concrete list…not to mention, to do so this early, when so many in the top echelon had not yet made their first starts of the year.

In light of that, I struggled over whether to include four really good horses on my ballot.

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Sunday morning, Air Horse One

He tips his chestnut head left, up, stretching his pink nose over the barrier.  “Sorry, kid.”

The grey in the next stall turns toward the voice.  “About what?”

“Yesterday.”

The grey whinnied, dryly.  “Sorry?  You didn’t bowl me over out of the gate.  You didn’t even go with me into the far turn.  I won.  What are you so sorry about?”

“Bowl you over out of the gate?  You were just a yearling then…”

“That race still comes up…history, you know?  Shedrow gossip.”

“History?”  The chestnut snuffled.  “I was there.  I still thank my lucky stars I drew outside that day.”

“Like yesterday?”  The grey cocked his eye.

The chestnut bobbed his head, amused.  “You know how to run fast, but you’ve still got a few things to learn.  You’re still only four…you’re young, no matter what the Derby Or Bust folks may say.  Sure, being hung wide into the first turn wasn’t perfect, but I’ve been there before.  I was always able to find something  — if I didn’t win, I could still make a race of it down the stretch.”

The grey blinked.  He broke eye contact with the chestnut, dropped his head, stretched his neck.  His ears rotated to find a signal, an answer, a response in the air.  All he heard was the plane, humming toward Kentucky.

“That.  That’s why I’m sorry,” continued the chestnut.  The grey raised his head.  “Congratulations — you ran your race.  I wish, more than anything, that I could have.  I knew it was my last chance to show my fans what I could do.  I knew it was the last time, until someone special surfaces, that anyone would challenge you.  This time, my body didn’t cooperate.”

The chestnut let that hang in the air a moment.  He took a breath, turned to his hay net, and took a bite.

The grey tipped his head up over the barrier.  “You did what you could.  You’re a runner.  Thanks for the challenge back at Santa Anita last year — no one else could have done that.  Good luck at stud, and say hi to anyone at the farm who knew my pops.”

“I will.  And, you?  Stay on your toes.  It won’t always be as easy as it’s been these last eight months.  I have some stories, not just about my knee yesterday.  But, as long as you can…keep running.  Tell your people to let you keep running.  Mares are nice, I hear, but nothing beats the roar of the crowd.”

another three-year-old of 2017

Three-year-old horses get to go to the Kentucky Derby if they’re good enough.

I don’t know what three-year-old blogs get to do, other than continue to take up space on the Internet.  This is as good a time as any to find out, though, since Blinkers Off turns three today!

To all of you who have been reading my previews, my recaps, my pieces about Curlin babies, my random asides…thank you so much.

On a writing front, the previous year has featured some change and a lot of adventure.

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words i wrote during 2016

Last night, I looked at the statistics for Blinkers Off for 2016…mainly, to get an idea of what posts were read most during the year last year.  The Chicago off-season, January and February, are my least frenetic months of the year writing-wise.  Between that and the fact that the change in year makes a nice, neat point from which to think about where my writing is going.

These were my top five most-read posts in 2016…followed by five other pieces that were not among the top-read at Blinkers Off, but that I come out of the year proud of.

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on horse racing trivia

Thanks to the Internet, everything has a “National ______ Day” now, and everyone knows it.  Today, Twitter has buzzed about National Trivia Day.  I had never heard of this before…but trivia is something I don’t need a specific day to celebrate or enjoy.  I obsess over trivia daily.

I grew up thwomping my siblings at Trivial Pursuit and Junior Jeopardy!, and I never had to study much for tests because I could recall the arcane names, years, and formulae from the lectures.  I always joke that I would have been a lot more excited about adulthood had I known that A Thing You Could Do involved going out to a bar on a weeknight, drinking beer, and taking a test.  I have been going to pub quizzes ever since I was old enough to get in.

Horse racing is the perfect sport for trivia geeks.  When someone asks me how I got into horse racing, my love of trivia inevitably comes up.   I didn’t grow up around the sport.  But, I did watch the Triple Crown races every year, and liked remembering who had won the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in each of the years I had watched them.  Even before I started going to the track, I had begun to read about racing, and my rabbit holes usually meandered back through pedigrees.  I would read about a horse, learn a few things, and then click on the page for the sire or dam.  Before I knew it the clock had stricken four in the morning, names and dates floated through my brain, and my browser pointed to the Darley Arabian’s Wikipedia page.

Oops.

I often wonder how useful my capacity for learning trivia actually is.  After all, we have the Internet now.  Most of this stuff I spend so many hours reading, reviewing, and retaining lives in Equibase.  Why does it matter that I remember a number, a date, or a half-sibling that anyone can look up on their cell phone?  A database recalls information more quickly and accurately than that grey piece of meat between my ears.

However, after a few years of following horse racing closely, the facts that have taken root in my mind have occasionally coalesced into something far more valuable.  Occasionally.  Most of it still feels like individual points of data, or very limited collections of it: a single horse, a single race, a single broodmare or sire and their progeny.  I remember this fact, and this fact, and this fact, and they shed this well-defined piece of light on my handicapping or analysis of a race.

But, sometimes it starts to feel synthesized.  It starts to feel like context.  It feels like context when I’m interviewing a trainer after a stakes race, and the interview goes somewhere I didn’t expect it to — but where I still know enough about this new branch of conversation to ask intelligent questions.  It feels like context when I’m chatting with a friend of mine who does not follow horse racing, and they ask me a question, and I have vivid examples to illustrate the answer to the question.  Even if I don’t have the answer, it feels like context when I can illustrate why the question they asked was more subtle, nuanced, or controversial than they thought when they asked it.

I have a long way to go — you can only see so much during three and a half years at the track, even going as frequently as I go.  The races, the mornings, the people, the horses?  They’re what connect all those raw facts and give them life.

In moments when those connections appear, it makes retaining all that trivia worth the space it takes up it my brain.

Jess’s Next Dream

someone who twice saw immortality
asleep a night, or for eternity
dreamt two forever horses made a third

although Apollo’s bane came to begird
and Triple Crown dreams soon became absurd
one August day made dreams reality

he carried hopes that he would duplicate
but never came back to the starting gate
a scintillating start: no guarantee

on this December day his legacy
now rests in faith that his rich family tree
takes root to flourish in the Sunshine state