Four or five times in my adult life, I’ve had the good fortune to attend the Kentucky Derby. The pomp, the elegance, the heady rush – by rights, those occasions should form my peak experiences at the track. For most of my adult life, I’ve lived 5 miles away from Churchill Downs. But for me, the pinnacle came in 1973, when I was 6 years old.
I grew up the child of a horse-crazy mother from Teaneck, New Jersey. In her teens, she worked as an exercise girl at the River Vale harness track. At Cornell, she became friends with a veterinary student who, 20 years later, became the personal doctor to a big red colt with an astonishing stride.
My mother’s own career goal had likewise been veterinary medicine, but history was against her. She had the ill fortune to come of age in the 1950s, when women were not admitted to vet school on the grounds that they’d just take a slot that should have gone to a man, then inevitably turn around and start a family, and that would be the end of their practice.
The powers-that-be kept her out of vet school, but they couldn’t kill her love of horses. The year I was born, she and my father bought twenty rolling acres of Kansas grassland, where a few years later they opened an Arabian stud farm. They christened it Southwind, after the creation myth: Allah created the Arabian horse from the south wind and gave the beast this blessing: “You shall fly without wings.” This was the milieu into which I was born. As a child, my favorite books were King of the Wind, about the Godolphin Arabian, one of the foundation sires of the thoroughbred breed; The Black Stallion; and The Sweet Running Filly. My toys were model racehorses: Man o’ War, Citation, Kelso.
Every year, on the first Saturday in May, my mother tuned our RCA television to coverage of the Kentucky Derby. The roar of “And they’re off!” shivered my young skin. In 1973, Secretariat swept the Triple Crown in a transcendent, nearly unearthly performance – 31 lengths and pulling away in the Belmont, flying without wings. We watched the replays over and over. My mother bought a copy of Time Magazine with his image on the cover: SUPER HORSE. My sisters and I wrote fan mail to the colt and mailed it off care of Penny Chenery at Meadow Stud. And then, thanks to Mom’s old college pal, we met Secretariat in person, in a private meeting on the backside at Belmont Park just after he’d captured the crown.
It’s a moment I’ll never forget. I held out my hand, and he bent his head down and snuffled it. He was immense and restless. His coat glowed a burnished red.
A few years later, after two more horses had won the Triple Crown, my parents took me to Churchill Downs. The experience felt holy to me. Standing on the track, I stared slack-jawed at the iconic twin spires, transfixed by the thought of the greats who had raced on this very spot. My dad handed me the thin plastic sleeve off his cigarette pack so I could scoop up some of the sandy dirt and take it home with me, a sacred relic.
In those days, horse racing occupied a mythic spot in the American psyche, precisely opposite the other sport then at its height: boxing, a brutal domain of body blows and broken noses, a sport whose aim was to overpower. Horse racing was the antithesis of all that, dedicated to the veneration of pure exultant speed. It drew from a power born of beauty, elegance, athleticism, know-how and good breeding, both human and equine.
What other sport exudes as much rich ceremony as horse racing, and where besides Saratoga embodies that historic pageantry at its apotheosis? Nineteen seventy-three, Secretariat’s year, began with Carly Simon at No. 1 on the pop charts singing “You’re So Vain,” a song about a preternaturally fortunate man. It was de rigueur that horse racing – and specifically Saratoga – figured into his elevated world.
Saratoga Race Course is the spot for the rarefied, for racegoers toting bottles of Perrier-Jouet in their picnic baskets. The upper level of the clubhouse is a sort of Mount Olympus in which the spectators are deities and the horses and jockeys mere mortals, speeding around the track below at a splendid remove. The rail, by contrast, is a windswept plain outside the painted cave at Lascaux, where humans are humbled, overtaken by the thunder in their chests as godlike horses sweep past.
Whether you prefer Mount Olympus or Lascaux, there is simply nothing else like race day at Saratoga. What other occasion is so filled with color and hope, ambition and chance, all of it reflected in the high shine of horses’ coats and the gemlike gleam of silks? What other occasion so perfectly pairs aesthetic splendor with fine-tuned animality? The iconic clubhouse roofline and infield gazebo lend a timeless air of spectacle. The architecture may be Queen Anne, but the swooping turrets and fluttering pennants lend the feel that you’ve landed in the midst of a medieval tournament, only instead of heavy-hoofed chargers and jousting knights, the contestants are lean thoroughbreds bearing brave hard riders the size of preadolescents. The trainers finger their stopwatches. The owners’ feet hover a hair’s breadth off the ground. It is all so very transporting.
Saratogians may enjoy the name-drop in Carly Simon’s song, but I’ve always thought the real tribute to the elegance of horse racing lies in the trajectory of that verse: After his (naturally) triumphant day at Saratoga, Simon’s playboy boards his LearJet bound for Nova Scotia to view a total solar eclipse – the only spectacle that could possibly follow the glories of the race course.
And therein lies the compliment. What Simon is saying is this: After Saratoga, you have to look to the heavens.