My Day at the Races
It was everything I expected and more. Remnants of the morning mist
clung stubbornly to the perfect ovals below, twisting through the white
rails and palm trees, and lingering in small clouds over the ornamental
ponds. Cherry blossom pink flamingos perched perfectly still on little
islands while a green and yellow John Deer tractor rounded the clubhouse
My companions were taking their seats at the table we'd reserved and I
was happy to see that our spot was only two tables away from being directly
over the winner's circle. Excitement welled up within me. I was really
here. I leaned down from where I was standing and flung my arms around my
"Thank you." I whispered a knot in my throat. She smiled up at me
while our other two friends opened their racing programs to look over the
day's card. I didn't want to sit still though, I wanted to explore while I
had the chance, before all the action began.
My mother agreed to come with me and we wound up outside the Turf Club
restaurant, gawking at the murals inside. I recognized Phar Lap and Man o'
War and immediately pointed them out to her, then proceeded to explain
their respective histories. She didn't waste much time before trying to
divert my attention elsewhere. We wondered over towards the paddock a
little after noon and were only there a few minutes before the grooms
escorted the horses into the enclosure.
I had seen racehorses on television, but in my mind they bore little
resemblance to the miracles before me. As each thoroughbred stepped into
the picket fenced paddock, defined muscles rippling beneath shiny coats,
heads held high, ears alert and proud as they gazed over the heads of the
gathering crowd to some distant point, I felt as though I was in the
presence of something divine. Some stepped high, prancing and nipping at
their grooms while others merely strode calmly towards their designated
My mother and I were standing next to where the number ten horse would
be saddled and I waited eagerly to see which one it would be as horse after
horse walked by. The last thoroughbred in line was a small bay with the
calm step and distant gaze. He seemed to be the only horse in the field
wearing blinkers, which I noticed right away because of the white mask.
His groom, who was wearing a purple poncho proudly showing the words
"Hollywood Park" and the number ten for the postposition, walked him in a
circle once before he was saddled. I looked at my racing program. The
number ten horse was named FIREINTHEKITCHEN.
After he was saddled Fireinthekitchen walked in slow circles.
Something caught his attention suddenly as he came towards me, both ears
twitched erect and his head shifted slowly until he seemed to be looking at
me. In that instant I felt my heart skip a beat. I can't describe the
emotions he roused in me with that simple stare for he was gone before I
could analyze them, circling away from me again, but the moment left goose
flesh tingling on my arms.
The jockeys arrived, looking like exotic birds in their colorful
racing silks, programs tucked under their arms as they twirled their whips
like batons. After a few brief words with the people around their horses,
the trainers leaned down, grabbed the jocks just below the knee, and lifted
them onto the horses.
We hurried back towards the track as the "Call to Post" played over
the loud speakers and rushed towards the top of the stretch. We were alone
there, my mother and I, and the position made the rest of the race hard to
follow, but it was perfect for what I wanted. We listened to the announcer
as he called the race, but we couldn't see anything except
indistinguishable dots. As we waited I told my mother to get the camera
ready. I wanted to capture this moment any way I could. As the horses
came closer and closer, I felt the noise of the crowd slipping further
away. As they rounded the far turn, running full out towards me, all I
could hear was their hooves beating in sync with my heart. A thrill shot
through me as I saw a white masked head curve aggressively towards the
horse on his inside as Fireinthekitchen leapt easily to the lead, black
legs thrusting out as he lengthened his stride. Just before he entered the
stretched I swore he looked right at me and I felt again the heart stopping
awe that had gripped me at the paddock.
The moment was gone as the horses swooped by me, nothing but a
moving blur. Chills raced up and down my spine and I felt my eyes sting.
As I stood there, swamped in a hurricane of emotion, my life seemed to
flash before my eyes. I remembered first grade and the book Thoroughbreds
I'd read. I remembered when I was nine and had watched a program on Phar
Lap. I remember reading the novel Bred to Win. I remembered countless
times horse racing had touched my life and been dismissed. I remembered
most of all, though, a Saturday morning spent channel surfing and
accidentally stumbling across the start of a race that would be the
beginning of my initiation into the world of thoroughbreds.
That morning I'd been a fan, someone content to cheer on their
favorite horses from the stands or the living room. After watching my
first live race, by afternoon I was no longer content. I realized as I
listened to the roar of the crowed and the thunder of fast falling hooves
that I had just experienced a moment that would forever change my life.