The Inside Rail

The glass jar sits on my desk. It has been there for years, unopened, in between a cup of pens and a picture from my riding days. The glass is cloudy, a gray film shrouds the inside. Opening it, the rubber seal separates from the glass lid and dirt sprinkles across my desk, on to my keyboard. It's not really dirt, more like sand, mostly granules the texture of Ovaltine, it could be on the bottom of a dinosaur display at a museum. Dry and abrasive to the touch, it's somehow cold. Its only purpose, well, other than to create a dust circle on my desk, is for the memory.

I've only done it three times. Once when Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby, but that was more for my friend, Graham Motion. Once, when American Pharoah, won the Triple Crown. And once, on September 5, 2009, when Rachel Alexandra rocked Saratoga in the Woodward.

Each time, when all was said and done and I was walking home, sweat-stained and spent, I felt like I needed something tangible, some kind of physical record of the achievement. I stopped, looked around and found a cup in the day's detritus, flicked drops of beer from the bottom and walked onto the racetrack, always trying to get the exact spot where the horse crossed the wire. 

For Animal Kingdom, it was wide, maybe in the 7 lane, I bent down like a kid at the beach and scooped the dirt in a plastic cup, the size of a Big Gulp, as drunken revelers scurried from security at about the sixteenth pole of Churchill Downs. They didn't see me. Months later, I filled some glass jars and gave them to my nephews, my brother, Motion and John Velazquez. I don't think I have any left. 

For American Pharoah, it was still bedlam, hours after he won the Belmont Stakes. I found a Styrofoam cup, balancing on the top of a trash heap near the tunnel at Belmont Park, walked onto the main track and stopped where his long fluid stride had once reigned and filled the cup to the brim, twisting the plastic lid on the top, dirt squeezed through the straw hole. The next day, on the way to John Panagot's 30th birthday party, I stopped by a grocery store in Oyster Bay, bought a jar of Smucker's and tossed the grape jelly in the bushes, rinsed the jar and filled it with some of American Pharoah's dirt, it was the best and cheapest birthday present I ever gave anybody. 

For Rachel Alexandra, it was the last thing I did, well, it was the last thing I did on the track. I had hours of dictation and writing back in the office for the last edition of 2009. I can't remember the cup and don't really know where it went, but somehow, my brother, Joe, found it and put it in a jar for me and I'm sure his kids. We had shared that day, one of those Saratoga moments when you can't believe what you just watched. 

I had somehow gotten caught down below, at the big screen in the clubhouse. I had tried to shadow Rachel Alexandra's trainer Steve Asmussen but had lost him somewhere between the paddock and the grandstand, he might not have been able to ride like his brother, Cash, but walking through a crowd at Saratoga, he can hit holes and shoot gaps just as quickly as his brother, the French champion jockey. 

So, there I was, stuck at the big screen, wanting to watch the race live but winding up at the TV, surrounded by the West Point Thoroughbreds team, all waiting to see if their boy, Macho Again, could oust the girl. If you've ever watched a race with West Point, well, you know they start yelling early and don't take no for an answer, sometimes, I think, 'Are they watching the same race I'm watching?' Not this time.

Rachel Alexandra turned for home, already softened up by fractions and assaults, and had two furlongs to greatness. She clung tough as Calvin Borel scrubbed, pumped and flashed his whip like he was waving a blanket at a bull. Macho Again chased her all the way to the line but couldn't get past, failing by a head. 

Underneath the grandstand, the noise was deafening, a reverberation that you could not only hear, but feel. Later, I walked back to the test barn and leaned on a wooden saddle stand with Asmussen. We were drenched in sweat, exhausted from the day, but energized by the moment. 

"I'm proud of her, proud for her," Asmussen said. "She gets to keep that twinkle in her eye. Everybody says they can do it, but you've got to prove it. She proved it. I coulda, I woulda, I shoulda, she woulda, she coulda...she did it. She came through didn't she? I cried, I've never cried at a horse race. It moved me."

Today, Asmussen and Rachel Alexandra receive the sport's highest honor. 

The dirt will be on my desk. 

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