About eight years ago, I was pretty certain that I was going to quit my job in New York City and tour the country as a traveling musician. Instead of going all-in right away, though, I decided first to link up with a buddy of mine, who performs as Leland Sundries, and share a few dates on his tour of the East Coast. We started out in Somerville, MA, on October 9, 2010; then hit Portland, ME, on the 10th; Burlington, VT, on the 11th; and my home-away-from-home at the time, Saratoga Springs, on the 12th. We ended up in our home territory, Brooklyn, on the last night, exhausted from driving all day and singing/playing our hearts out all night. Needless to say, I decided then and there that the nomadic lifestyle of a rock musician wasn’t for me after all.
Don’t get me wrong; the tour was a total blast. One of the more memorable moments occurred on that first night in Somerville. After we’d played both of our sets and had a few beers (we were paid in drink tickets, I think), we jumped onstage with a mutual friend and did a delightfully sloppy version of The Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers.” I’d originally discovered the song on a mixtape a friend had made me for my birthday and fallen hard for the dirty, countrified twang-rocker, which is the ultimate kiss-off to a former lover, complete with a heroin reference and a hat-tip to horse racing. The lyric goes: “Well, when you’re sitting back/in your rose pink Cadillac/Making bets on Kentucky Derby Day.” Sure, the narrator ends up in a basement “with a needle and a spoon” (i.e. doing hard drugs), but I couldn’t help but enjoy singing it a little more because of that angle. After all, I’m from a world-renowned horse racing town.
So whatever mode of transportation you decide to get to Saratoga Race Course in this July, August or September—whether it be a rose pink Cadillac, Subaru Forester or Bugatti Chiron—this playlist, which includes songs that name-drop horses and horse racing, will help you get from here to there in no time. Who knows? You might find yourself on tour someday, singing “Dead Flowers” with one of your best friends. Or just singing it, karaoke-style, in your living room. Either way, remember me when you’re (almost) famous.
The Rolling Stones – “Dead Flowers” and “Wild Horses”
I couldn’t not include the two greatest—and most covered—Stones songs that rock a horse reference on this list. And it just so happens they wound up on the same record: 1971’s Sticky Fingers, my personal favorite from the band’s cavernous catalog. If you’re a fan of the choice nuggets of the not-so-distant past, I’d suggest checking out The Flying Burrito Brothers’ version of “Wild Horses,” with one-time Byrds member, Gram Parsons, on lead vocals (The Byrds’ Chris Hillman was also in the band). Friends at the time with the Stones—and apparently, liberally sharing that needle and spoon with them—Parsons delivers a lead vocal performance that may just trump Mick Jagger’s.
Carly Simon – “You’re So Vain”
In saratoga living‘s 20th Anniversary issue, we featured the lyric from this Carly Simon classic that name-drops Saratoga (Race Course). It goes: “Well, I hear you went up to Saratoga and your horse, naturally, one.” (It turns out the “you” she was skewering in the song—and the person who was “so vain”—was one-time lover Warren Beatty.) Guess who shows up on the track singing guest vocals? Mick Jagger. Both Carly’s lyric and the Stones’ “Dead Flowers” lyrics share that top-of-the-line “Well,…” Coincidence? I couldn’t find any evidence yay or nay, but it’s worth chewing on for a second, isn’t it?
America – “Horse With No Name”
Man, I love this song. It’s one of those classic ’70s singer-songwriter tracks that’s so bad it’s good. I say “bad,” because the lyrics are truly dreadful; they sound like they were written by a 10-year-old boy (no offense to pre-teen boys, of course). And then there’s the issue of it sounding like an exact vocal replica of Neil Young, who at the time, was going through his own acoustic-country phase, releasing the best-selling Harvest just a month after America’s self-titled debut. That said, he’d already been at it quite a bit longer than America—and the band has noted their intentional worship of Uncle Neil. To add insult to injury, “Horse” nudged Young’s own “Heart of Gold” out of the top slot on the Billboard charts. Regardless, it’s the perfect top-down, wind-in-your-hair road trip song.
Bon Jovi – “Wanted Dead Or Alive”
Like “A Horse With No Name,” this is one hell of a hokey song. Originally on Bon Jovi’s breakthrough album, Slippery When Wet (1986), and released as a single in ’87, it got all the way to No. 7 on the Billboard charts. (And I’ve gotta admit, I always thought it was on the Young Guns II soundtrack until just now, when I realized it wasn’t.) The song sets up the dumb-as-rocks metaphor of a rock band being like a band of outlaw cowboys. My least-favorite favorite verse? “I walk these streets/A loaded six-string on my back/I play for keeps/’cause I might not make it back/I been everywhere, still, I’m standing tall/I’ve seen a million faces/And I’ve rocked them all.” Yikes, that’s cheesy. But it’s still a memorable song. You can’t beat that opening 12-string acoustic riff—or “that steel horse” Bon Jovi and his band of brothers ride into the sunset on (i.e. their tour bus).
Kacey Musgraves – “High Horse”
If you haven’t cracked Kacey’s first two albums, I strongly suggest you sit down and take a few hours to get familiar with her incredible brand of country pop (i.e. 2013’s Same Trailer Different Park and 2015’s Pageant Material; she also put out a wonderful Christmas album). I caught her a few years ago opening up for The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who was touring in support of the 50th anniversary of the band’s classic album, Pet Sounds. It was a weird match-up, but she held her own and blew me away. She’s not like all the other Nashville country stars that try desperately to choke you with beers, bourbon, breakups, bro culture and the Bible. Her lyrics are so witty, welcoming and well, real, it’s impossible not to fall in love with her brand of songwriting. And she can belt it out with the best of them. “High Horse” is from her latest album, Golden Hour, which is already getting all kinds of Grammy buzz. Do yourself a favor.
The Shins – “Mine’s Not a High Horse”
The Shins were indie rock darlings for most of the aughts, after their single, “New Slang,” from their wonderful debut album, Oh, Inverted World (2001), was featured prominently in Zach Braff/Natalie Portman movie Garden State (2004). (To be fair, the tune was already a big deal among indie circles, but that introduced it to a mainstream audience.) I actually bought the album “Mine’s Not a High Horse” is on—2003’s Chutes Too Narrow—at a long-closed record store on Broadway in Saratoga. A few years later, when I wrote one of my first full-length features on the band for Nashville’s American Songwriter magazine, I got to interview lead singer James Mercer at his hotel in the Lower East Side and then spend the rest of the day with the band, roaming around Williamsburg, Brooklyn. At some point, I got my copy of Chutes autographed by Mercer. The pen must’ve not been strong enough, because the autograph is so faint now. Bummer. The memories remain in song, though.
The Beatles – “Dig A Pony”
From 1970’s Beatles breakup album, Let It Be, “Dig A Pony” is the second track on the album, and one of those tunes I’ve always imagined John Lennon bringing to the band. (He sings lead vocals on it.) It’s a funny little song. Before album-opener “Two Of Us,” you’ll hear Lennon jokingly refer to “Dig A Pony,” professing: “‘I Dig a Pygmy’ by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids. Phase 1, in which Doris gets her oats!” It’s mostly gibberish except for the reference to Hawtrey, who was a famous British comedy actor known for his Carry On film series, and “Deaf Aids,” which were Lennon’s nickname for The Beatles’ Vox amplifiers (Vox’s can reach an ear-shatteringly high register; “deaf aids” is British for “hearing aids”).
George Harrison – “Dark Horse”
Basically, everything that George Harrison released on his solo records in the ’70s can be assumed to be songs that would’ve made it onto Beatles albums had it not been for the Lennon-McCartney songwriting behemoth. While Harrison’s solo career kicked off in about as amazing a way as possible with 1970’s All Things Must Pass, his later albums are a bit all over the place. Case and point: “Dark Horse” makes Harrison’s same-titled album a little less tedious of a listen.
Katy Perry – “Dark Horse”
Needless to say, this is not a George Harrison cover song. It’s about as saccharine a pop hit as there has been out there, and well, if you’re into that sort of thing, it should be right up your alley. (The song helped me train for a few road races several years ago.) It shouldn’t come as surprise that Katy scored a No. 1 with her “Dark Horse” in the US. Featuring guest vocals by Juicy J, it’s saturated in the sexual innuendos you’ve come to expect from Perry, and I just hope and pray that it’s not about John Mayer, because…next song!
Taylor Swift – “White Horse”
The song won Tay-Tay a pair of Grammys in 2010 and is classic Swift, telling off some made-up (or real life?) guy who screwed her over. But in a really smart, metaphoric sort of way. I have to admit: I was a much bigger fan of Swift’s when she was still considered a country artist. There was this innocence and authenticity to her lyrics and vocals that her newer, pop-ier stuff doesn’t have. And, as far as I know, this song was not written about John Mayer. But it could’ve been!
Toby Keith feat. Willie Nelson – “Beer For My Horses”
Say what you will about Toby Keith’s no-holds-barred public persona, the guy can write a catchy country song. And this one may be one of his best. Plus, he’s got legend Willie Nelson lending some vocals to it (the Red-headed Stranger will be playing the Saratoga Performing Arts Center later this summer with the aforementioned Neil Young, by the way). It was a No. 1 country record for Keith, who has ridden (get it?) its fame ever since.
The Band – “Up On Cripple Creek”
One of The Band’s best-known numbers, “Up On Cripple Creek” is lyricist-guitarist Robbie Robertson at his absolute best—and it became a signature sung-song for drummer Levon Helm. “Cripple Creek” includes this lovely verse: “Good luck had just stung me/To the racetrack I did go/She bet on one horse to win/And I bet on another to show/Odds were in my favor/I had him five to one/When that nag to win came around the track/Sure enough he had won.” That’s an entire stanza devoted to the “Sport of Kings,” so it’s got to make the list. The racetrack that inspired Robertson? According to one commenter on SongFacts.com, it was Delta Downs in Vinton, LA. There’s no real way of confirming this, but it’s gotta be somewhere down South.
The Hold Steady – “Chips Ahoy”
I have sort of a history with this band—sort of. Before I moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a friend in the music business told me that the lead singer of The Hold Steady lived in the neighborhood somewhere, but I wasn’t one of those hanger-on types that goes out in search of private lives or homes. So it caught be unawares one Saturday afternoon, when I was huffing and puffing on the treadmill at the Greenpoint YMCA, to see reflected in the mirror in the full-length mirror in front of me, lead singer Craig Finn huffing and puffing away on an elliptical machine directly behind me. There were a number of other sightings, and I never said a single thing to him. I may have tweeted about it once, but I immediately felt bad about it. (Sorry, Craig.) The song is a completely, utterly awesome horse-racing-themed song, by the way, and is all about a fictional Thoroughbred named Chips Ahoy, who the narrator’s girlfriend (or wife) bets $900 on to win. She comes up big, and the two of them end up spending most of the rest of the song Hunter S. Thompson high. Giddy-up!
Counting Crows – “Another Horse Dreamer’s Blues”
If “Chips Ahoy” is about winning big at the races, “Another Horse Dreamer’s Blues” is about losing big. But not so much at the game of horse racing but rather that of life. At one point, the lead character Margery contemplates taking down a whole bottle of pills and calling it a day. Despite its dark subject-matter, the song’s a really beautiful, moody-as-hell deep cut from a standout Counting Crows album (1996’s Recovering the Satellites, another personal favorite). If you want to dig deeper into the band’s catalog, the song is supposedly one in a trilogy that includes “Margery Dreams of Horses” (a non-album track, which can be found in live form on the deluxe edition of August and Everything After) and “Anna Begins,” which originally appeared on the non-deluxe version of August.
The Byrds – “Chestnut Mare”
I’m about as big of a Byrds freak as you’ll find. I fell down the rabbit hole about 15 years ago, and I never really stopped falling. I’ve listened to way too many Byrds songs, tracks by members of The Byrds, covers of Byrds’ songs and Byrds-like songs. I even own a 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar, which I coveted for years before my wonderful wife bought it for me as an engagement present (that’s the jangly instrument you hear on most of their most famous songs). “Chestnut Mare” was recorded during the post-country, bluegrass-y Byrds era, and is an absolute hurricane of finger-picking and twang, courtesy of guitarist Clarence White. Lead singer Roger McGuinn’s half-spoken, half-sung lyrics are sort of corny and “of the era,” but the music is really sweet and enjoyable. And it’s all about trying to catch a majestic horse in the wild and tame her.
Did I leave any of your favorite horse- or horse-racing-related songs off this list? Be sure to leave them in the comments section on Facebook or tweet them at us via Twitter.