Sunrise at Old Hilltop Two Days Before Preakness

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All photos by Elizabeth Bastos

There were a handful of kids on former jockey Charlie Fenwick’s great pre -Preakness tour of Pimlico this morning. I stood on the apron next to a lady named Janice who knows things because she follows Claire Novak of Blood Horse on Twitter and has a farm of quarter horses herself. I really like Janice. “Follow the drone,” she told me, “it’s following Nyquist,” and she was right.

Nyquist has his own drone. Nyquist blew by us, and I was suddenly 11 years old again, cheering like he was All the Beatles. Cheering like he was Simon Le Bon or Secretariat or as if his Purpleness, Prince, was not dead.

How much can one ’80s valley gal enjoy the Preakness knowing Prince is dead? Several tears less. But he would want me to go on, dearly beloved, in a big hat. Because we are gathered here today to celebrate this thing called the glory of horseflesh, Lord, forgive me, but it is beautiful. A must read for horse-heads: The New York Times’ turf writer Joe Drape’s American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner’s Legendary Rise. I finished it last night. I’m carrying it like a piece of the true cross hoping Drape will sign it while I look at him with eyes like big lipid pools of you’re so awesome.

going round the track Pimlico 2016

There is an Arabic proverb that says of the horse, “thou shalt fly without wings and conquer without a sword.” Yaaas, Allah. Amen. The beauty of a horse with a small man (or woman, but mostly men) on its back in fast motion leaves me breathless, clutching my fascinator hat with half a partridge on it to my head. It looks right at no other occasion but for the Triple Crown races in May.

There was a lot of agreement on the track this morning that Secretariat’s Preakness in 1973 was some of the best riding that anyone has ever seen. “Hand rode him to the finish, Ron Turcotte did,” was said with admiration.

Jockeys, and horse people generally, value hands. A horse is measured in hands.  Charlie Fenwick said, “It’s important for a jockey to have soft hands.” It means a horse trusts you. And then, magnificently, he showed the assembled group how to flip a crop (a whip? some leather whatsit that makes your horse go) and asked us to imagine doing that dexterous motion on the back of a horse going 40 miles per hour, mud splatter in the rain among the traffic of an 11-horse field when you’re pinched along the rail. I could feel my adrenaline surge. But then, I go all fangirl around my eight-year-old daughter’s school pony that is basically a Newfoundland. CAN I BRUSH?

I’m #TeamNyquist  and #TeamExaggerator and #TeamCollected and #LaniTheGreyIsSoHandsomeandCantakerous (the media is calling him the bad boy, and I love a bad boy; they’re all my boyfriends) and #TeamCherryWine (what a great name, it reminds me of the cordial that got Anne’s friend accidentally drunk in Anne of Green Gables). The track whispers that Nyquist is good on mud. And mud, or rather, a deluge, is expected for Saturday’s race.

Some of the kids were wearing jockey’s goggles given to them by the valet. The valet smoothes the way for jockeys. (I’ve been reading Blood Horse. I follow the long form horse journalism of  Claire Novak because Janice with the quarter horses told me to.)

These kids looked so cute bug-eyed in their school uniforms and jockey goggles. It was early. They were going straight to school after the track. I imagined that it was 1925  (and everybody had an accent like Eliza Doolittle). Teacher:  Were have you been? You? The track?  Them: Yes, Miss. The track’s wot’s good education, Miss. 

It’s loverly. 

Donnie Miller, the institution, told me he’s been horseback since he was 11. (Proving my point that what you love at 11 you love forever and I told him so.) He said, “I was too short to play basketball. So.”

I side-glanced his hands, checking them out for gentleness. They looked strong-gentle.  Like a rock climber’s.

He explained to me a sloppy track.  I asked, “Is it true some horses are ‘mudders’?” “Is it just their personality to like adversity?”

The track at Pimlico is specially drained to avoid a total mudbath or becoming in the rain like a Jell-o shot. Still, a jockey might go through six pairs of the kind of goggles the kids on the tour were wearing for fun. But a good horse that wants to run will run on a sloppy track, “or broken glass,” he said.

Miller has been involved with Maryland racing for over 60 years. His son Don, also a jockey, won the Preakness in 1983 aboard Maryland bred Deputed Testamony. Why are Thoroughbreds names always spelled wrong/American Pharoah should be Pharaoh like a king of Egypt. He’s a stud. No really. He gets paid to play.

The valet at Pimlico handed me a saddle because like a good valet (as I learned from watching all six seasons of Downton Abbey) he sensed my motivations: Leatherwork. Boots. In one of the jockey’s cubbies, there was Nivea face cream.

Pimlico jockeys toiletries

Like a moth to a flame, like a crow to things that are shiny, I am drawn to all things jockey. It’s because my first crush was on Alec Ramsey, the boy who rides, a fictional character from Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion. And I use Nivea face cream. So there is overlap. There is a Venn diagram.

jockey towels

Jockeys’ boots. Elf-small. Black and shiny as obsidian. Like a fairy tale of small things the tack room. The jockeys sumptuously colored silks.  Cherry red. Wine-dark crimson. The valet told me that he makes hundreds of Maryland crab cakes for the jockeys. His wife runs the jockeys’ kitchen.  He said, “You’d be surprised. Some of them eat a lot.”

jockeys boots


Without stirrups, the racing saddle weighs a few ounces. It’s contoured and thin. With stirrups, it weighs a pound. My handbag weighs more, which makes sense mathematically because I weigh two chubby jockeys. My handbag alone weighs half a jockey.

horse bath Pimlico 2016

And tomorrow morning I’m going back down to the Pimlico rail. I hope you’ll join me. You can see horses having a bath (which I personally find adorable because it’s like fancy children being care taken by their nannies), Clydesdales (who eat 50 pounds of hay a day), and in between the stakes barns the wonderful Cheshire cat smiles of the trainers who know their horses know how to win.

Clydesdales Pimlico 2016

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