However, the events of Kentucky Derby day forced me to consider how I might have to confront my love of the sport in relation to those who know my passion for it. The Derby is the only chance racing has to catch the interest of the casual fan. Lots of people like to pick a horse for fun. Rich Strike’s 80-1 win appealed to many of the hopeful in us last year and caught positive media coverage beyond the usual markets.
The events this year were particularly tough, however. I’ve loved racing since the Kelso era (talk about a “throwback”!). At 14, I begged my mother to take me to Saratoga. Her family came from the Albany area so it became a tradition. Our first day at the track was the 1962 Ridan-Jaipur Travers, a head and head, heart-pounding, 1¼-mile duel that epitomized the thrill of the sport that I would become hooked on.
Approaching the 50th anniversary of that day in 2012, I decided to throw a luncheon party at Saratoga for a disparate bunch of friends and family, only a few of whom knew each other and none of whom knew much or anything about racing except that I was a lifetime fan. They were there to honor my friendship and something they knew I loved.
By any standards, it was a great success. The weather was gorgeous, everyone seemed to have a good time, and one friend’s husband was over the moon about the place, the beauty, the horses, everything there. I had never done anything like this but I will remember this event both because of the continuity that it celebrated in my life and my family and the fact that I was able to showcase my passion for this sport at the place that I consider my “holy grail.”
Fast forward to this year’s Derby. My lifelong racing partner passed away on the day of the Withers so I had no context for even looking forward to it. Then the deaths. A business associate joking about looking for a “tip” before the race later called, gently asking “what happened with the deaths?” He was trying to be discreet; he knew it would be a painful topic.
Two friends who were at my party in 2012 asked not about the deaths, because they hadn’t followed the race to even know they had happened; one asked if my horse won; the other said she hadn’t watched it as “she’s always concerned that a horse might get hurt.” That judgment didn’t come from her association with me. That’s from being a devoted animal lover living in today’s heightened awareness of animal welfare. As if I didn’t also love horses? Did she forget how great that day was in person at Saratoga? It certainly wasn’t a reference I was going to raise. Just let it be.
No, maybe I’ll just grab a folding chair and go by myself. That’s how I saw Rachel Alexandra win the Woodward, an unforgettable spur-of-the-moment venture, where I stood with a bunch of maybe 20 fans as Calvin Borel waved to us after the finish line. It’s now the site of a new upscale restaurant. The best days at the track can be free if you know their real value.
Churchill Downs will blow the bankroll to hype next year’s 150th Derby. But if horse welfare becomes the key issue, all the high-priced, curated dining experiences, fancy hats, and mint juleps will do is become a souvenir of how what was once called the sport of kings got downsized to just another overpriced sporting event on some casual fan’s bucket list.
All the heartwarming Cody’s Wish profiles will never erase the experience of an animal tragedy. Racing seems forced to accept, however, that they are both part of the story of the sport. What can we do about it?
— Jane Fieberts
Autor Letter to the Editor