Why I go to the Breeders’ Cup

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The trips have simply gotten harder to make. Miles, Annie, farm, expectations, life… 

My first Breeders’ Cup lit up my world, 1997. I figured I could break even if I bought a plane ticket, slept on a couch and wrote a feature about jockeys for The Blood-Horse. Skip Away won the Classic with Mike Smith. I spent the afternoon in the jocks’ room and wound up with a honorable mention for the Eclipse Award – and better yet –  I broke even on the trip 

Many have come and gone since and they have gotten harder. The arduous task of packing, traveling, landing, settling, weathering the storm (sometimes, literally, as in the last two days) and missing anything in Miles’ life has made it more daunting. I don’t sleep on couches any more and I do better than break even, but Camelot does seem a long way in the mirror. Nobody’s fault – times change, you change.

Then I see a horse. I’d trade a thousand afternoons for one morning.

Golden Horn. Tuesday morning in the slashing rain, I stood along the outside rail of the training track, hoping to see a horse who made the rain stop, at least, in my mind. I wiped the fog from my binoculars, hopped up and down trying to keep some feeling in my toes and waited. And waited. Then, across the mist, through the rain, a horse – the horse – appeared. Ears up, walking like he had somewhere to go and was happy to get there. I said to myself, ‘That’s got to be Golden Horn.’ The Arc winner walked eloquently, across the horizon, following a pony, a stablemate behind him but he cut a solitary swatch through the rain. I tried to make out the number on the saddle towel, impossible, but I knew it had to be him. He picked up a jog, floating, circling languidly around the turn and came toward me. Ears still at attention, placing his toes down gently, like only he knew where to step, he rolled past, effortlessly but quickly. He came around again, stopped and walked. When excited about horses, I walk with them, stammering out words, with my racetrack slang taking over, ‘Maaaaan, that’s some walk.’ The exercise rider on Golden Horn’s stablemate, Cymric, looked at me, the one solitary fool standing in the rain talking about a horse’s walk and laughed, “Yeah, and I’m on a good walker and I can’t keep up.” 

Manhattan Dan. Yes, Manhattan Dan. I had to look up what race he was in when I read his name on his saddle towel. Jog? He doesn’t jog, he hovers. In dressage, they talk about an extended trot. Manhattan Dan has a hook-and-ladder trot. In the rain on the first morning, he jogged past like he was listening to Motown, lengthening and waiting with each step. Right…wait…wait…wait…left…wait…wait…wait…right…wait…wait…wait… left…

Beholder. The first and only time I’ll see her this year, unfortunately. The bay machine galloped straight and true this morning, pulling hard, but confidently, contentedly. An hour later, I read that she bled after the gallop and won’t run in the Classic. Guess I’ll cherish seeing that gallop a little more.

Honor Code. Walking through the rain yesterday, with nowhere to go, betwixt and between the main track and the training track, I met assistant Robbie Medina, the Whitney winner and exercise rider Donna McMullen walking up the hill. That was the end of betwixt and between, I turned like I forgot my keys and followed the massive bay to the paddock. He sauntered, a light sway, as he walked, meeting the Lane’s End Racing entourage and trainer Shug McGaughey in the paddock. No antics, he jogged off to the right and broke into a gallop as the rain met us square in the face. The second time around, Honor Code streaked past, his stride long, high and strong. He reminded me of the banana truck in Harry Chapin’s song.   

Keen Ice. The boy has become a man.

Karakontie. I have to admit, I didn’t notice him last year before he upset the Mile and it’s like he’s laughing at me every time he goes past. The light-moving bay tossed his head in the air and leapt forward, splashing mud, ‘look at me, look at me, look at me.’ Joyous in the moment.

American Pharoah. The Triple Crown winner made his first outside appearance this morning, walking onto the training track, backing up a furlong and turning into a gallop. More like, launching into a gallop. With every rein-busting stride, I could hear my dad when I first started to gallop horses, ‘Keep your hands down. Keep weight in your heels. Don’t let him break your hold. Slow down. Slow down. Slow down.’ It wasn’t happening as American Pharoah pulled Jorge Alvarez like he caught a hitchiker with the corner of his bumper.

Yeah, that’s why I come to the Breeders’ Cup.