By post time Pimlico Race Course had been downgraded to “sloppy.” It was a day of steady rain. Coming off the infield, the boots of the party kids were covered in mud. Hat feathers drooped. Women’s lace gloves — the revival of an 80s-esque Madonna trend? I hope so! — were spangled with raindrops.
Two horses died during the Preakness undercard. A heart-wrenched Maury Brown of Forbes asked, “Is it time for horse racing to stop?” He wrote, “My whole life, I’ve been fascinated with horse racing… But it’s becoming harder for me to watch horse racing. I, like many others, am beginning to wonder if the stakes are too high.” No doubt, the sport has an underbelly. I’m beginning to wonder, What sport doesn’t have an underbelly? (Every doping scandal ever.) A competition breeds competitiveness and it’s a race to the bottom sometimes for the upper hand. We say we worship at the altar of so-called sportsmanship.
By the time I got to the press box, the mood was dark. It was not lost on anyone that is was “ten years after the Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro sustained an eventually fatal injury in the Preakness.” People tweeted out, “Just praying for a safe trip for all.” Joe Drape, turf writer of The New York Times wrote of the weather’s mess: “Advantage Exaggerator.” I wrote, “Dos Mas Mario,” hoping for a Triple Crown for Nyquist jockey Mario Gutierrez who was denied one aboard I’ll Have Another. Yet he was denied another.
Then they were loaded into the gate — these ethereal power-creatures, spirit animals, who have no choice but to run, they’ve been bred over generations to run, weaned on “milkshakes” and the bad habits of people — and I was about to start philosophizing and swearing off horse racing and all animal products; I would become vegan; I would pasture has-been Thoroughbreds in my yard till they were dizzy with my affection and never even use an organic shade-grown hemp bridle on them — and they were off.
The shimmering ’80s power chords of Vangelis’ famous Chariots of Fire da-da-daaaa-da-da were coming from somewhere. Inside my own head. In the spitting cold rain of the press box balcony tied to the mast. I was hearing the sirens sing.
For two minutes I was outside my body and inside the body of a horse, I was a child again, mud-flecked, thundering they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary. I’ve never been much for sermons, but watching the horses run was The Temple of The Track. I can see why people go off their heads and win and lose millions on this religion. Horseplayers.
Only afterward did I realize I’d been yelling. Like it was a tent revival.
I lost my voice. I husked to my children, “That was the most Most of my life, except for having you two.” Joe Drape signed my copy of his book American Pharoah. I stood there like, You are the Mozart of turf writers, sir. “Call me Joe,” he said. Then he said he had to go file Exaggerator’s win for The New York Times. I was reduced to Yoda-speak, Yes, go you, and that do. Must. Only do.
I cried in the car on the way home overcome with emotion. What was I doing? My PETA friends! How can I make the case that we continue to sport with the race horse? It’s eugenics, obviously, and add to genetic puppeteering, we hit their babies three years after they’re born with whips to win. And we feed them cubes of sugar. And hop them up on drugs. Who do we think we are? We’re monstrous.
I looked at the red hat I wore. I felt like I had two heads. The angel of my better nature: Leave the ponies, Elizabeth. The non-angel: Could anything possibly be more spectacular than the sport of Kings? They’re head and head, as they say of close races.
But this morning I woke up to the poster in my living room of Seabiscuit Moves Ahead of War Admiral at Pimlico, 1938. They were head and head. And again I heard the strains of Vangelis, I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m going to have to exist with tension for awhile longer, as we all do, in this in-between space between horse racing and loving horses.