Thursday, January 19, 2006


I'm so sorry I haven't posted. As always, it's because I suck.

It's also because I've been working on something. I'm always screaming at my students that writing is a process and the first draft is never enough and revise revise revise and blaaaaaahhhhh.

Guess how many drafts these posts go through.

So I thought I'd do my own homework. Many of you are new here (hi!) and missed some of my earlier Thoroughbred writing. I've always been fond of "Day At the Races," and since My Pat just called it quits, I thought I would have a go at it. So here it is... the new and improved "Day At the Races"... which took two days longer to revise than it did to write in the first place.

Yeah, I don't think I'll be doing this again anytime soon.

The best days at the racetrack begin in the altogether. I was newly showered and wearing one sandal when I learned that within three hours, Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day was riding at Tampa Bay Downs.

The arrival of Pat Day at the Downs is the approximate equivalent of Babe Ruth rolling into an over-thirty softball game down at the middle school fields. Pat Day is one of the best jockeys America has ever produced; Tampa Bay Downs is one of the worst tracks on the face of the Earth. You don’t go there to see the pretty hats and pet Seabiscuit. The purses are small, the piles of cigarette butts are large, and the ladies' room is apparently used to house at least fourteen of the horses running on any particular day.

But this particular day was Tampa Bay Derby day, a prep race for that other, slightly more famous Derby. Three-year-old Thoroughbreds do not drop from the sky directly into a starting gate in Churchill Downs; they must earn their place by winning races such as this. First the rancid, then the roses.

Preparation for the Kentucky Derby begins about a year before the mint julep ever hits the glass. Jockeys sift through the current crop of two-year-olds in search of an acceptable date to the dance. The top ones—and Day is the tip of the top—have their pick. To not have draped one’s letter jacket over the shoulders of the hottest girl in school by January is to court Kentucky Derby disaster, at which point you might as well throw up your calloused hands and start scanning the foals for next year.

In 2004, Day has chosen to escort Limehouse, a Florida-bred who won a minor stakes race as a two-year-old. He needed a win at the Tampa Bay Derby if he was to amass enough winnings to make Churchill Downs.

Post time was at 4:19 PM; I was alerted to the Holy Presence of Day at 2:17, when I was sitting a good two hours from the track. I was wet, and un-makeuped, and broke.

But I had a full tank of gas and I had a hair dryer and no fear of taking on Interstate 4 in a fully responsible manner ("GET OUT OF MY WAY I'M TRYING TO MAKE A POST TIME YOU STUPID AMBULANCE AAAAUUGGGHH YOU PEOPLE HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE OF PRIORITY!")

I made it to Tampa in an hour and a half, once again proving that God does indeed keep me around pretty much for reasons of His own amusement, if only to watch me attempt to handicap.

Handicapping is the kinda-science of filtering through a morass of horse data: age, weight, jockey stats, trainer technique, mother, father, workout times, record in past races, the Russian judge’s score for artistic impression. All this information is listed in a hieroglyphic, teeny-tiny box in The Daily Racing Form, which is why my personal handicapping system is firmly rooted in determining whose horse has the most soulful eyes.

Astronauts, in orbit, see sixteen sunrises within a twenty-four hour period; the only thing in the human experience rivaling this is a full card at a racetrack.

The best part of any race comes long before the gates and the dirt and the finish line are dealt with at all. It is that moment in the paddock when the jockeys stream out to meet their mounts, brilliant in their silks and heartstopping in their certainty. They cross their arms, whips in hand; their goggles rest atop their helmets or dangle from their necks, and you can see the race in their eyes. "It is humanly impossible to look cool in a helmet," someone once told me--well, jockeys do. The blood and mud from the last race has been washed away, and it's Morning In America, right there on the grass. It is spring nine times a day in a paddock.

The first thing I noticed about seeing my very first Hall of Fame jockey up close was that Pat Day needed a haircut. The second was that he looked exactly like the other jocks in the walking ring--just a little older, a little shorter, and generally exhausted. It was kind of like standing four feet away from God, or Lou Holtz.

As for Day’s mount, Limehouse was brown, with a long white streak blazing down his nose and a nice, balanced gait. His breeding was impressive, his eyes alert. Also, he smiled at me.

When you place a bet at a racetrack, what you do is tell the clerk the name of the racetrack, the number of the race, the amount of money you’re laying down, the entry number of the horse, and whether you’re betting for win, place or show.

What you do not do is wave two dollar bills around and announce, “Pat Day and the pretty brown one, please,” and you definitely do not do this at the $50 minimum bet window when the large angry man behind you wants to place a super-duper-fecta wager, or whatever, on the race beginning in thirty seconds.

The clerk had to scrape a discarded copy of The Daily Racing Form off the ground in order to decipher just what I wanted out of life as the gamblers in the queue behind me radiated little wavy lines of hate in my general direction. I returned trackside with a small scrap of a ticket and many invitations to perform physically impossible sexual acts upon myself.

It is a metaphysical experience to watch a race at the ground level--downwind, upright, both hands gripping the outside rail--and see the story unfold on the dirt just beyond my toes.

It starts in silence.

There are two or three seconds after the last horse is loaded and everyone--jockey, owner, bettor, horse, history--is just waiting. We are all on the same plane at that moment; all on one level, pitched forward and staring and silent, waiting. Then there's faint shouts of "Go! Go!" from the loaders, the bell rings, and bam clank the gates fly open, the horses drop, and organized chaos pours past.

The gate seems miles and miles away--at Tampa Bay Downs, you can't even see it on ground level--and the break, the bell ringing, the chutes clanging clear, the hooves tight and low... I can hear none of it. And the jockeys, as they round the backstretch behind the tote board, the jockeys float. The board obstructs the horses, and for a second or two the silks are suspended in air, groundless, gliding.

The field is all clumped together as it rounds the second turn, and I am on my toes, leaning in.

Though I know I will miss them, I love to watch them go. Silks are flying, horses are jostling, the jocks in the rear are hunched and fierce, legs and brainpaths and instincts reorganizing the entire race now that the start's been shot all to hell. Round the bend, behind the board: We are in silence again.

The handicappers are smacking programs against the fence, against one another. The woman next to me, she is missing this. "Who am I rooting for again?" she asks her boyfriend. He checks the ticket, as he knows numbers, not names. "Um. Five, two, and eight," he says.

"They have to win in that order?" she asks.

In the space of this, the horses have rushed up; the jockeys have gone to the whip.

Sportswriters like to wax on and wax off about the "thundering hooves" and "trembling ground" of the homestretch, absolutely none of which I experienced. What I saw of the final stretch was a multicolored comet, hushed and furious and punctuated by the slapslapslapslap of whips on muscle and the shooting screams of the crowd.

Here's Day, balancing, absolutely still, Limehouse churning beneath him, cutting through and bursting past the leaders in full flight. He is Indiana Jones; he is Fred Astaire and the President of the United States of America. I am yelling, not words, just yelling, pushing him forward and the finish line back.

There are, in this world, minutes, seconds, hours, days. Pat Day is bound by none of these. Pat Day warrants his own unit of time. He is beyond the stopwatch or the hourglass; he is at once strobe lights and a midnight snowfall. He and the horse drift forward, so fast that they are past me just as I've registered them, and yet slow, slow, slow, a rhythmic arc stretching on and on.

After he won (of course he won) Day touched his whip to the sky, then thumped his mount fraternally on the neck and slid to the ground as though he'd done nothing particularly wonderful. He bounded past me back to the jock's room, gesturing as he talked to a reporter about the race. I backed away, for I am scary, and there was nothing I could have asked him that he hadn’t already answered on the back of Limehouse.

Someone snapped a picture of the groom carrying Day’s saddle. Hoofprints stamped the sandy dirt of the track beyond, scattered and blurry, bare proof of the kinetic miracle that had just tumbled past.

I stayed.

I stayed past the trophy presentation for the fourth race (Day some more, again), past the next two post parades and into the garbage races, the last on the card. I stayed for the lovely dappled gray that stared at me he went past, the seven-year-old girl moving her lips as she read the names in the program, the starter who stroked the head of the horse in his gate as the field loaded on either side.

The sun went down, the air chilled. The coverage on ESPN2 moved on to dirtbike racing. I returned to my car, program swinging from my fingertips, which I suppose is what one does when one has seen greatness.

take 2 at:


Anonymous said...


JHD said...

I agree: WOW. I feel like I was at the Downs with you.

*waves* Sorry for not introducing myself, I just had to say that first. I'm another reader of yours who found your blog through and the (apparently infamous) Severus Snape article.

John B. said...


You know that I am a horse racing fan...and you wrote about your experience at the track and captured the true feelings before post time better than anyone I have ever read. (Well, OK, SeaBiscuit the book wasn't too bad...but losing by a nose to that book isn't all that bad).

Great posting.

LaBelleAurore said...

Hey MB:

When I first discovered this site I read through all your archives. All. of. them. It took me several days of slacking off at work...but anyway, to get to the point, out of all your awesome posts, this is one freakin' AWESOME post. You and Pat kick ass.

Red Pill Junkie said...

I first discovered your blog thanks to MSNBC, and your article about Obi Wan Kenobi, that almost made me wet my pants with laughter. After that I read all your posts (took me about 2 or 3 weeks, and it was well worth it). The most important thing that I discovered is that one can consider a person to be extremely inteligent and talented, even if one DOES NOT AGREE ENTIRELY whith that person's polytics. I would have never thought of a person who regards George W. Bush as a great president to be smart, but you certainly have proven me wrong.
Fortunately, we do share other insterests like Star Wars and Space Exploration, your posts regarding Columbia's tragedy were some of the best in my opinion. What we do not share is the passion about horse racing, but your posts like this recent one (well, not so recent since it's a re-write) are very interesting none the less; you can write girl, there's no question about it. My suggestion is that you should write a novel about these passions you have: Space and Thoroughbreds; I recently read an article on Discover magazine about a legendary 18th century english race horse called Eclipse (you probably know all about it) which won all the races he ran, wouldn't that be a great subject for a novel? Just a little suggestion from one of the members from your international club of fans (international, 'cause I happen to be mexican querida gringuita ;-) ).

So long and wishing you the succes you deserve...

Tu carnal de Chilangolandia,

2xgtld said...

MB- I miss the part you had in the first post/draft about parking in Albuquerque- spent some time there and was rotflmao at that description... but you switched tones from quite humorous to a certain degree of pathos and real artistry. No doubt about it- you can write. I like the changes... Can I make the suggestion that you take out the shouting at the ambulance on I-4? The rest is so lyrical now and that line was a touch of the older draft that was laugh out loud funny.

And Red Pill Junkie- I'm with you. I think there's a certain fear of "outing" yourself as a non-supporter of the Administration, but it goes to show that good writing is good writing. I find myself amazed that I enjoy reading a blog of someone with such very different viewpoints- but I read nonetheless- perhaps because I also have a "pretty girl flowy skirt" that I love to teach in!

Anonymous said...

Aw, thanks, kids. Your kind words mean so much to me after a long day of being an idiot.

red pill junkie, I'm very glad you're here. Eclipse is quite the icon in the horse world; the "horse Oscars" for each year are called the Eclipse Awards.

2xgtld, I'm always happy when you show up here! Thank you for your constructive criticism. I agree it's a bit jarring. (And if you want to talk about fear in expressing your politics, try being a conservative college professor in an English department :))

Rick said...

As I read "Day at the Races" I found my eyes riveted to my screen, hanging on to each word, anticipating the next with baited breath. Excellent.

Keep them coming. Reading your blog is always a joy.


Josh The Pilot said...

Now y'all know why I love MB so much!!

kelebek }{ said...

I actually never cared for horse races, but I read the entire post. Hope you update soon!

Dan the Reader said...

I hate horse racing and yet my eyes were glued to every word, my breath baited, my brain in overdrive, and my pants down around my... uh... nevermind.

Your talent is wasted on teaching. Teaching is best done by example, and you should be producing examples like this one on a higher level.

Others said "wow". I couldn't even speak afterwards.


Anonymous said...

My goodness, such kind words. Many thanks, everybody. It's great to know you're out there and I appreciate that you took the time to say hi. I'm going to go curl up in a ball and smile now.

Planty Hamchuk said...

I've never been to a horse race, but through you're writing I'd swear I've been now. Seriously, that was so /REAL/, and on something I've never even considered vaguely interesting before...

Talent, you have.

Anonymous said...

hello !

that's just a test

Anonymous said...

Oh, MB, I got goosebumps... Once again, you're the most marvelous writer I have ever had the pleasure of watching "Apollo 13" with... :) With love from the Scottish Highlands

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