So, You Think You Love Horses? Some Reflections on the Nature of Horses and Man

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A Trip to the Kentucky Derby

Goodyear Blimp Churchill Downs Flag


The 137th running of the Kentucky Derby was a sight to see. In a crowd of 165,000 people the accidental horseman was but a small and inconspicuous figure. There was no favorite, and in that sense it was very much a true horserace. I always watch the Triple Crown races on television and have attended the Preakness in years past. You get a bird’s eye view of the race on television, and the field seems to move almost in slow motion. However, when you are at the race and at ground level with the horses you get a true picture of just how fast they are moving, and the power of those thundering hooves vibrates through your body.


My mother was an artist and a dedicated people watcher. Her artist’s eye took in humanity and the many individual nuances projected by human beings. There is a fair amount of downtime during a day at the races, and you can fill it with people watching. A lot of the attendees, and particularly the ladies, are well turned out for the event. You will see every kind of hat imaginable and a real fashion show. We discovered the best place to do this was on a bench where the line to the ladies room passes. If you can get past that look of desperation on their faces, you do get a compressed view of female fashion and form in 2011. Not to be biased toward the ladies, some of the men are something to see as well. Zoot suits in purple, pink, red and orange stripes are out there and there was even one that had purple diamonds amid a lime green background reminiscent of the attendees at Alice’s tea party. However, I am talking about racing, so back to that.

Every year in the United States about 35,000 Thoroughbreds are born and undergo the selection process that brought a large field of 20 (the maximum allowed) horses to run this particular race. The horses are three-year-olds and the race is run on a dirt track rather than on turf. Racing has a long history in the United States. The first racetrack was constructed in 1665 and this particular racetrack, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, opened in 1875. In the years that followed, the Kentucky Derby emerged as the premier racing event in the United States and is the first race of the Triple Crown, a series of three races beginning with the Kentucky Derby, followed by the Preakness in Maryland, and culminating with the Belmont Stakes in New York. There were a total of 13 races run on Derby Day and the 11th race at 6:30 p.m. was the Kentucky Derby. The winner was a 20-1 long shot named Animal Planet, and prior to the race none of the handicappers or commentators even mentioned him. There was a concern that it might rain and speaking of horses running on a wet track, they were saying things like, “His father was a mudder and his mother was a mudder.”

Louisville concert 4th street club

The Kentucky Derby is a national event, but the people of Louisville have made the races run the day before their special day. It is called “Oaks Day” and the featured race is called the Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies only. Schools are closed, and the town of Louisville assumes a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere. The crowd at the track on Oaks Day was a substantial 110,122 people, and the color pink much in evidence because it is ladies’ day to support Susan G. Komen fund-raiser for breast cancer research.

bend horses1 horses2

I discovered that it is not easy to take photographs of racing. I would line up what looked like a great shot and then look at my final image only to discover that where a millisecond before there had been a pack of horses, I had only a nice shot of the rail across from me and nary a horse in sight. Perhaps the most exciting shot that I missed was before the 8th race when the number five horse, Vivo Per Lei, literally crawled under the starting gate. I was all lined up to take a photo of the moment the horses sprang from the gate and there was this commotion. I figured that one of the horses was acting up in the starting gate and stood down for an instant figuring there was nothing I would get a photo of. My wife shouted, “She’s crawling under the gate! Now tell me she’s not the horse of the year!” It did not register until both the horse and jockey Calvin Borel emerged unharmed, the horse was led away, and a disappointed Calvin Borel strolled back toward the clubhouse as the crowd shouted both its condolence and relief that there were no injuries. The gate’s locks are designed to give way in an emergency so as to prevent injury to the horse. I thought that I would Google it to see if the action was captured on video by someone and posted on YouTube, but all I get are these hits for a nice vocal duet titled “Vivo Per Lei” by Andrea Bocelli and Hayley Westenra. I suppose the breeder was a fan of their music.

Crowd Pleasing Jockey, Calvin Borel and Vivo Per Lei
Calvin Borel Vivo Per Lei


Oh yes, I know you want to know: “What did I think of the Mint Julep?” and “How much did I win?” The truth is that, aside from the security people and a few hardened members of AA, I was probably the only cold sober person in the stands, and I did not win a red cent. For many people that would have been no fun at all, but when you are only an accidental horseman, that comes with the territory. I had as good a time as the folks who were carried out on stretchers unconscious and as the people who might have won big. I figure, unlike the people who were carried out, at least I did not have to work all that hard to figure out where I was when I woke up. I have been there, done that and do not need to do it ever again. As for not winning a red cent, you know my feeling about luck. For me “nothing ventured” is important and “nothing gained” is expected. The horse racing industry has not caught on to the fact that there are a lot of people like me who just are not bettors and never will be.


Many people say the racing industry is in decline, and I have seen evidence of that here in Maryland. However, it looks very much alive and well on Derby Day in Kentucky. Horse racing needs a makeover and to broaden its fan base. Look what NASCAR has done, and tell me racing cannot do the same. Since there are now so many avenues for gaming, it needs to provide an entertaining experience for people whose interests are elsewhere. Those stereotypical pot-bellied, middle aged characters straight off the set of the Sopranos, the older guys who smoke cigars and spend their paychecks at the tract every week are simply not carrying the industry anymore. Today's wife is not about to put up with a husband who goes off and blows his paycheck every week at the track. I am not blowing cigar smoke in your face when I say that, like it or not, the industry needs to get the ladies out there and that will involve some needed changes in the atmosphere at the tracks. I would offer special sections for parents with young children who do not want to mix with a bunch of loud college kids who are out for a good time; offer a quality babysitting service similar to Disney complete with the mechanical carnival horse that will take you for a ride for a quarter a minute; provide other forms of entertainment between races that appeal to the younger generations who are used to being entertained 24/7 and get bored easily; let people “go backstage” and talk to retired jockeys or see retired race horses in small supervised groups at scheduled times. There is a lot the industry could do with the proper leadership and imagination.

The wife misses her horses at home.
In the Paddock
Lead Pony

The Accidental Horseman.

A Woman's Advice: Surviving the Kentucky Derby
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