I have a co-worker who enthusiastically starts asking me all kinds of questions about the Kentucky Derby the moment he sees me. He’s been doing this for at least a month. He leans in with what he apparently thinks is a suave backstretch-insider smirk and starts talking about works and post position win statistics and how much he’s going to put into his exacta box. And every time I smile really politely and remind him that this year is not a Derby year for me.
I got a media request for an interview regarding this year’s Derby and my thoughts on the dwindling popularity of horse racing for the general public, and I had to politely decline. (I should’ve just referred the reporter to this guy at work. They might not have gotten the perspective they expected.)
I’ve been paying absolutely no attention to the Kentucky Derby. Oh, I went to the Tampa Bay Derby and saw one of Saturday’s starters win that day. But I was still so star-struck after seeing champion mare Tepin win, I actually forgot who won the feature race and had to be reminded later it was Destin! Sorry, Destin!
The reason is two-fold: one, I have been really focused on eventing this year, because that’s the subject matter of the novel I just finished, and two, I prefer summer and fall racing. I particularly love the big summer races at Belmont and Saratoga. Maybe it’s just that I really love summer, I don’t know. The Travers Stakes is my derby.
But I know a lot of equestrians get this level of May-Day enthusiasam at work and they never, ever, have anything to say about racing because they just aren’t interested in it. What pleasure rider hasn’t had a picture of her horse pinned to her cubicle wall that garners absolutely zero interest 51 weeks out of the year, but in the first week of May, suddenly finds it has marked her as ground zero for conversations starting with, “So, who do you like in the Derby?”
It’s kind of crazy that the number one event non-equestrian people associate with horses, is probably one of the least popular events for the general population of equestrians. I know I have plenty of readers who don’t like horse racing. Or who don’t mind the concept, but can’t abide with the execution. Or who are completely indifferent. Even if you come to this blog because you love your retired racehorse and you’re proud that your OTTB was once a warrior on the track, I’m aware that probably more than half of you just plain don’t like horse racing.
That’s okay. There are plenty of reasons to not like racing, or just to insist that the industry hold itself to a higher standard and fix itself, for goodness’ sake — just like there are opportunities for any other equestrian sport to do better by its horses and by its people.
I just wish that other sports could grab hold of the American imagination as whole-heartedly as horse-racing, and more to the point, that other single competitions could enter the line-up of great American sporting events, as well as the Kentucky Derby. My big equestrian moment of the year isn’t tomorrow, it was last weekend, and it wasn’t even on television, but live-streamed: Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. For other riders, it might be World Cup show-jumping, or dressage, or reining, or… or… so many disciplines, so little market share.
I love horse racing because I think at its heart, racing is the most pure form of equestrian sport: My horse is faster than your horse.
But at the same time, horse racing isn’t a fair representation of what the horse means to us in America. The Kentucky Derby isn’t the symbol of our collective horsemanship. It’s just one drop in the bucket of all of our love and hard work and passion and drive and sweat and tears. (But hopefully not blood, to quote Grace Wilkinson in her new eventing novel A Perfect Stride.) It’s a part of all of us, whether we like it or not, because we’re horseman and at our core we know only endless labor and endless love can produce good horses. But we all add up to more than fast horses: we add up to strength, endurance, scope, elegance, precision, sensibility as well as speed.
What’s the point of this ramble? I wish horses were more popular, and less insular, I suppose. I wish more kids got to be working students at a barn a bike-ride away from their neighborhood. I wish there was a barn in my town. I wish Pony Club was as normal in a suburban town as soccer or gymnastics. I wish horses were more of a way of life and not mistaken for a status symbol, since I daresay most of the horse-owners in the United States would laugh heartily if you accused them of being rich (or possibly even middle-class).
I wish someone would ask me about who I liked at Badminton this weekend.
(It’s Michael Jung, of course. We all like Michael Jung.)