When I got into the sport of horse racing, it was a pretty lonely thrill; few people shared my enthusiasm, or could understand why I got so excited come the first Saturday in May. All I had were my parents and the brief newspaper articles during the Triple Crown, those articles I'd be lucky to find on page three of the sports section. I'd campaign to everyone I knew about the big upcoming races, but most people had never heard of a stakes race outside of the Kentucky Derby and just smiled politely at the little enthusiastic kid jabbering away about horses. (Admittedly, not a lot has changed in that respect.) But when I grew up, I started driving hours away from home and attending the tracks for live racing. I don't know what I expected, exactly, but I never would've anticipated what I found on the track and the backstretch.
It was like coming home.
I have never seen or heard of a sport that appreciates fans so much. Aside from the chronic gamblers who shout at the simulcast TVs all day long, the people who inherently care about the sport time and time again go out of their way to make you feel welcomed, and for you to have a memorable experience. I'm talking about everyone from valets and gift shop employees to million-dollar horse trainers and owners. Maybe it's that they realize they are existing in a sport that lives only in concentric circles, little orbiting worlds that rarely touch people outside of their revolutions, but the fact is, once you experience this phenomenon, you can't help but feel like a part of the family.
During Kentucky Derby week at Churchill Downs, the party atmosphere was infectious. People were dressed to the nines on non-stakes days, smiling faces were everywhere, and people who didn't know each other would rub elbows and chat about the nine horse in race three, and whether his jockey improved his odds. My husband and I took a shuttle from the back of the parking lot to the grandstands, and the valet sneaked us two free tickets to the third level, directly below Millionaire's Row. We didn't ask for the tickets, or hint that we wanted to sit up in the expensive seats; he just wanted us to have a good time. The Sunday following the Kentucky Derby, the connections of Mine That Bird stood outside of the Kentucky Derby museum and handed fans roses from the famous blanket of roses that drapes over the Derby winner's shoulders; just a little memento that will create a lasting memory.
The last thing I expected from the sport of horse racing was the sense of family I would begin to feel at the track. True, it does help if you follow the coverage on HRTV and TVG and get to know the horses, jocks, and trainers, but in person, horse racing is a whole different experience... and it's so much better. You can stand on the rail, as up-close and front-row as you can get, for less than $5 at most tracks, and be right in the middle of the action. You can admire the highest-class Thoroughbreds from only a few feet away, and get a nod from a world-class jockey for simply taking his picture. It's an old-time pastime that doesn't require a lot of spending money, nor any fancy technology to enjoy it.
There are few sports as simple as a man on a horse trying to win a race, but there's an unspoken serenity in its simplicity. You can enjoy the same pleasure someone experienced in the 1600's, with little difference. Yes, there are times when it's not all gloss and fancy, much in the same way a family has its trials and black sheep. But that's life, isn't it? Nobody is perfect, and no family is perfect.
But then, there is the family that is perfect for you.