The Kentucky Derby is tomorrow, and for the first time in recent memory we won't be watching the race at our friend Susan's place in Brooklyn. Susan's hospitality is second to none, and we're especially sorry to be so far away on this Derby Day, when Susan and her husband Steve will also be celebrating their wedding with a reception at Belmont Park (Congratulations!).
Strath at Belmont, 2008
I grew up riding horses and when I was little I read just about every book about horse racing that I could get my hands on, but I've never followed the sport as an adult – except when the Triple Crown races roll around every year. Despite the fact that horse racing too often seems to serve up tragedy and beauty in equal measure, there's something about the tradition, the pomp and circumstance, and the hope against hope that this year will be the year that produces a new Triple Crown champion that is undeniably infectious...it all somehow seems to me like Spring incarnate.
Strath has previously recommended John Jeremiah Sullivan's Blood Horses, part memoir of Sullivan's father, a sportswriter, and part history of horses and thoroughbred racing. I won't add to that except to agree that if you're looking for a great read this May, look no further – and to share a passage from the book that I always think of this time of year. In it, Sullivan describes watching footage of Secretariat winning the final leg of the Triple Crown at Belmont in 1973, decimating the previous world record time for the distance by 2 3/5 seconds and finishing 31 lengths ahead of the second place finisher, Twice a Prince:
There is a passage on the tape that I noticed only after watching it dozens of times. It occurs near the end of the race. The cameraman has zoomed up pretty close on Secretariat, leaving the lens just wide enough to capture the horse and a few feet of track. Then, about half a furlong before the wire (it is hard to tell), the camera inexplicably stops tracking the race and holds still. Secretariat rockets out of the frame, leaving the screen blank, or rather filled with empty track. I timed this emptiness – the space between Secretariat exiting and Twice a Prince entering the image – with my watch. It lasts seven seconds. And somehow each of these seconds says more about what made Secretariat great than any shot of him in motion could. In the history of profound absences – the gaps in Sappho's fragments, Christ's tomb, the black panels of Rothko's chapel – this is among the most beautiful.
So, tomorrow we'll be raising a mint julep or two (recipe below) to our two- and four-legged friends here and elsewhere, to Spring, and to the hope that this year is the year. Cheers.