My First

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My father kept walking out of the kitchen with another plate. It was 1984, I was 14, in between winning pony races at Far Hills and Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, just a kid, desperate for a place, enthralled by the sport, engulfed by the thought of becoming a jockey.

We were living in George Strawbridge’s tenant house, in the country. Labrador Retrievers roamed. My brother was in college, my sister had just gotten her driver’s license, she wasn’t around. Mom must have been working. Dad, the trainer, had a weekend off. He was cooking. Between every race, he would go to the kitchen and walk out with a plate. Nachos. Dad style, tortilla chips spread on a plate with whatever cheese he could find – Velveeta once, parmesan another time – from the fridge, microwaved about 20 seconds too long.

The first Breeders’ Cup. My first Breeders’ Cup.

Seven races, seven plates of nachos, Dad put the plate down between us, we’d dig at the cheese, scraping it up like two dogs in an alley. Watching those seven races that day, you knew the game had changed forever. One race after another race, one drama after another drama, all shown on national television. This was HD before HD.  

Eillo in one succinct name and performance opened it. Fran’s Valentine and Outstandingly, drama. Royal Heroine and Fernando Toro, the purity of a turf miler. Princess Rooney, oh, how I wished Eddie D. would put down his whip. Chief’s Crown, deservedly, only later after Don MacBeth had passed way too soon, did you realize how deservedly. Then the Classic, if it were a screenplay, you would have said too many plotlines, the mercurial Gate Dancer, the showman Cordero and the quiet brilliance of Pay Day converging in one last desperate act.

Dad and I rooted for Gate Dancer but were happy with Wild Again. We weren’t betting – how could you back then? We were simply enjoying the sport that we shared, dad and son.

And now here we are 22 years later…jeesh, did I just write that?…here we are 32 years later, hours apart, sharing the moment when Beholder and Songbird clashed, two gladiators from two different worlds, one determined to be carried out on her shield if she had to and one stepping into the deepest flame she’d felt. A 6-year-old mare in her last race battling an undefeated 3-year-old filly, who had led every step. Two Hall of Fame jockeys, close friends, money’s-down jockeys, flicking and waving whips without a hint of urgency. That’s as good as our sport gets.

Pass the nachos.