Monday, May 4, 2009
Several years back, a good friend recommended Laura Hillenbrand’s compelling book, Seabiscuit, An American Legend. She said that I would enjoy the author’s work as much as I would the story. She was right on both counts.
The story kept me engaged from beginning to end. Hillenbrand’s style kept me there. Leslie Green was spot on. Hillenbrand’s prose inspires me.
It also introduced me to the world of thoroughbred horses.
According to my strict religious upbringing, dancing, drinking, smoking, profane language, movie going and gambling were all lumped together as out-of-bounds for us true believers. As we advanced from adolescence to adulthood, one of the real challenges for us moderate-to-progressive believers with advanced academic degrees was to remain true to our roots while at the same time ignoring or even violating a bunch of those old prohibitions. This abandonment required a refined capacity for rationalization backed up by a complex biblical hermeneutic; but we managed to make the case – to the horror of grandparents everywhere. Many of my fellow believers have become wine connoisseurs, aficionados of microbreweries and fine Cuban cigars, die-hard fans of Dancing with the Stars and quite capable film critics. Some salt and pepper their speech with one time prohibited vocabulary. Perhaps deprivation enhances curiosity and then ultimately – indulgence. All things in moderation, of course.
But gambling. I never could get over than one. Las Vegas always made me feel like I was walking the streets of Sodom and Gomorrah. Casinos still trigger flashes of guilt and shame and holy trepidation. It’s built in. A conditioned response. A hailstorm of fire and brimstone are the inevitable outcome for visiting such places. It’s the way I was raised.
The racetrack is in that category. You know, gambling. So, I wouldn’t know much about the track at all except for the story of Seabiscuit; Red Pollard (jockey) and Tom Smith (trainer) and Charles Howard (owner). As Hillenbrand’s story unfolds in the depths of the Great Depression, jockey, trainer, owner and horse come together and bring out the best in each other – reawakening and reviving broken careers. They inspire a nation – and a full-length feature film.
And maybe because of Seabiscuit, thanks to the technology of DVR, I can’t help myself. In spite of that upbringing, I check in to the Kentucky Derby every year. I’m quite certain my grandfather would disapprove, but what a spectacle.
It is an irresistible occasion for opulence – conspicuous consumption on a grand scale, right in there with Oscar night – a coming out party for the super wealthy. The dress code is Scarlet O’Hara meets Tom Wolfe. The hats. The colorful blooms. The celebrity interviews. The Twin Spires. A cool mint julep. The deep green lawns and English country gardens – roses, calla lilies, carnations, Gerbera daisies, and tulips. Of every variety and color. Did I mention the hats? Wow! The sort a woman might wear to Buckingham Palace for a springtime lawn party.
Lerner and Lowe nailed it in My Fair Lady – opening day at Ascot –Ladies and Gentlemen Every Duke and Earl and peer is here Everyone who should be here is here. What a smashing, positively dashing Spectacle: the Ascot op’ning day.
So who would have imagined the script that played out in this year’s Kentucky Derby? Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai flew in two of his horses on one of his corporate jets. He declared his determination to win the American classic, no matter what it takes. And he’s got all the money he needs to make it happen. He has poured untold millions into his pursuit of the Kentucky prize. But neither of his champions, Regal Ransom or Desert Party, both potential winners, delivered. The prosperous Sheik has yet to attain that coveted visit to the winner’s circle. Without a doubt, he’ll try again.
This year, the surprise winner was a dark horse, brought to the event in a trailer pulled behind a pick up truck for twenty-one hours all the way from New Mexico. His owners purchased Mine that Bird for a paltry $9,500 and celebrated only one thing: they qualified to show in the famed Derby. Co-owners Allan and Blach hired an unlikely quarter horse trainer – Bennie Woolley – a former rodeo rider. Two months ago, he suffered a broken leg while riding a motorcycle. So when he chased his winning horse into the winner’s circle in stunned disbelief, wearing a broad brimmed black silver studded cowboy hat and blue jeans, he hobbled on crutches.
Just before, on the track, Jockey Calvin Borel held back in last place up until the final quarter of the race. Then, he cut Mine that Bird loose. The re-play shot from the aerial view from the blimp that floated overhead tells the stunning story. The unlikely thoroughbred sprinted his way on the inside bolting past some of the most expensive horses in the history of the event. Several trained by Hall of Famers. Two more flown in from Dubai. A couple of sentimental favorites. No one imagined Mine that Bird had a chance. Fewer placed bets on his number. The odds were fifty-to-one.
But off he went, like a sprinter out of a slingshot. Like a fighter jet launched off the deck. It was more than a gallop. He soared. Along the rail, he cut inside through an opening no wider than his rib cage. And then out in the open. He pulled away. The raucous cheering for the favorites in the packed house dampened into a shocked dull “huh?” Who is that horse? What’s his name? Where did he come from? Can this be happening? From under the broad, flowered hats women in sundresses frowned. Men in colorful suits and starched collars staggered back in bewildered disbelief.
As Borel crossed the finish line he stood up in the stirrups a record breaking six-and-three-quarters lengths ahead of the second place horse, pointed heavenward and screamed in delirious delight. A network reporter pulled up on horseback and put her remote microphone up to the winning jockey’s face and caught the unbridled celebration for all to hear. Calvin Borel, who has already won one Derby, never imagined a second trip to the winner’s circle. Certainly not on this horse. Looking toward the gray Kentucky skies, the jockey who finished his schooling with the eighth grade hooted and hollered and cried, “Mom and Dad – I wish so much that you were here to see this!”
And out of the gloom of a sloppy, rainy post-crash afternoon in the Spring of 2009, in a sport forbidden by my childhood preachers and Sunday school teachers, I saw it with my own eyes in high definition: broken down trainers can try again.
The dark horse can be the winning horse.
Money is no guarantee of success.
The winner’s circle is not for sale.
The race is only over for those who stop running.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009