Monday, May 5, 2008

And They're Off

My good buddy Susan has a Kentucky Derby party every year at her apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Her family is obsessed with the ponies and she has a complete set of Derby glasses to prove it. Susan's a great hostess and it's always super fun times. The pictures above are completely blurry because for whatever reason I didn't want to disturb this groove by using a flash all over the place. The blurry view is kind of what we were all seeing anyway, several juleps in. Consider it reality-blogging.

The race was actually one of the less spectacular of recent years, and tragedy struck when the lone filly had to be euthanized immediately after breaking both front ankles. Still, I'm excited to see how Big Brown does in the Preakness—he's all anticipation and dreams right now, with the chance to join Seattle Slew as the only undefeated horse to win it all. I don't know that much about horse racing but the hope for the Triple Crown has become for me a measurable part of what makes late spring a great time of year.

There are a couple things I always like to review when Derby Time rolls around every year. One is this book by a dude I used to know name John Jeremiah Sullivan—Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son. Sullivan moved back down south a few years ago and regrettably we all fell out of touch. He had been an editor at Harper's and the book sprang from an award-winning piece he wrote for the October 2002 issue—Horseman, Pass By: Glory, Grief, and the Race for the Triple Crown. Here's an excerpt, from his experience at the Kentucky Derby:
Ivana Trump is here, too, in a tasteful feathered hat. A heavyset frat-looking guy in a white T-shirt and a white cap is screaming at Ivana, and people actually quiet down to enable him. "Ivana!" he bellows. She goes on chatting. "I-V-A-N-A! We love you, Ivana!" She keeps her back to him, but it is clear to all that she is now consciously keeping her back to him, which is fun to see. He has pierced the veil. Emboldened, he switches to Puffy, who now goes by P. Diddy. "P. Daddy! P. Daddy!" he cries. A woman walks up and starts giving him a good slap on the back every time he lets loose with one of his wild namings. I hear her refer to him, in conversation with another bystander, as "my son."

The behavior of this lunatic and his dam raises a question about the people inside the paddock, which is, What kind of person would voluntarily endure what is essentially a foodless outdoor cocktail party of strangers in heavy sun, in a concentration-camp-style enclosure, wearing outlandish clothes and trying to appear relaxed while being gawked at and openly insulted by hundreds if not thousands of drunken hill people? It is sad to be reminded, once again, that all this horse racing business is about the rich, for the rich are hideous. There is nothing they cannot ruin. And, of course, if there is one other thing that horse racing is all about, it is people who do not have money to lose—the bettors—losing it.

So it is beautiful when the horses themselves appear, in their ignorance and their majesty, and assert their presence amid all this crappiness. "Oh Horse, Horse, Horse," wrote D.H. Lawrence in a letter, "when you kick your heels you shatter an enclosure every time," and now I know just what he means. Only those with souls most thoroughly hollowed out by fame fail to turn and watch the three-year-olds
when they take their slow lap around the paddock. And the jockeys! Who could not love a sport with its own paid battalion of wee men, their bright, gay silks, their young faces, their ambiguous quasi-midgetry. We have had to evolve a special race of human beings, when you think about it, so that the thoroughbreds may have riders.
You can buy Blood Horses here or at your local bookstore. No matter if you're into horse racing or not, it's a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The other thing I like to revisit at this time of year is a recording I made of the 2004 Preakness Stakes. Having won the Kentucky Derby, Smarty Jones more than delivers on all the excitement and anticipation with a massive win at Pimlico. Of course, we know now that he was not able to close at Belmont—but every time I listen to this, the excitement and the feeling of hope still gives me chills.

The 129th Preakness Stakes mp3

Mark your calendar: The Preakness is May 17th. Here's hoping that Big Brown pulls it off.

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