Tuesday, May 5, 2009


There seems to be no end to the things people collect.--antique farm tools, chopsticks, 50's lunch boxes, milk glass(always a favorite), Mickey Mouse memorabilia, the list goes on. In lieu of having a really interesting collection (say, umbrellas or rhinestone broaches or velvet pictures of Elvis) I collect horse names. Not officially, mentally. They stick in my brain like tacky magnets or running text on an electric sign, refusing to disappear into oblivion as other more important information does on a daily basis. My drivers license number, for instance. Birthdays, wedding days, names of people I do know, appointments, all fodder for my mental Black Hole. But a horse's name? Won't be forgetting that. Yes, I know I'm sick. The first step is admitting I have a problem.

With the recent running of the 135th Kentucky Derby, I had the chance to indulge my love of horse names. What could be more interesting than the names and cooresponding stories attached to Thoroughbred race horses? Elvis has nothing on the dreams, despair, blood, sweat and tears of the sport of kings. And naming a race horse isn't simple. The name is a wish, a prediction, an anouncement, or even a joke. It may stick in history, or inside somebody's head,(like mine) for eternity. If you're lucky. The horse's name says alot about the owner. How about the very unsubtle, I Want Revenge, or more wishful, Hold Me Back. A lighthearted, Chocolate Candy, suggests an owner with a sweet tooth and then there's the simple, get-to-point name of, Run. The filly Regret forever recorded her owners disappointment that she hadn't been born a colt (colts being favored for racing). I think the horse deserved a name change when she became the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby.

A name is a stab at immortality, the immortal horses that have gone before reading like labels in an exclusive clothing store (gotta get me that brand)--Northern Dancer, Eclipse, Aristides (first Derby winner), Storm Cat, Sea Biscuit, Secretariet, Bold Ruler, Barbaro. The list goes on. Not simply monikers but titles of a story--somebody's, somewhere. The names suggest attributes shared equally between equines and their caretakers--hope, heart, tenacity.

Breeding the Thoroughbred is as much of a science as man can muster. Imperfect but imperative. For lineage buffs(and other freaks of nature), I suggest the book, Stud: Adventures in Breeding, by Kevin Conley. Fascinating look into the Thoroughbred race horse. This years Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird, wasn't conceived by accident. By Birdstone and out of Mining My Own, Mine That Bird did exactly what his father did, upset everyone's best predictions (Birdstone foiled Smarty Jones's bid for the Triple Crown). Many betters at The Downs were crying into their Mint Juleps Saturday when the bay gelding confounded the experts, coming from behind and winning in a spectacular burst of speed. I love when horses do that. But then I didn't have any money on the race. Bravo to the brave souls who bucked the crowds and put their money on the 50-1 longshot. I'm also happy for the horse who, like other long shots before him, decided Saturday was his day.

Mine That Bird reminds me of two other phenominal racehorse geldings whose names, and the stories behind them, are noteworthy. John Henry and Funny Cide. Funny Cide, by Distorted Humor, won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Owned by a circle of middle class friends who never expected to win with the horse they love, Funny Cide has a bit of a Cinderella story. It is detailed in Chicken Soup for the Horselovers Soul, II. But John Henry has to be my all time favorite. Talk about rags to riches, nothing horse becomes a celebrity. John Henry's breeding has been called, "phebian." This means middle or lower class. To be blunt, his owners couldn't afford Nordstrom and settled for JC Penny. Bought as a yearling for $1,100, the horse was named after the folk hero, John Henry, described as a "steel drivin' man." John Henry, the horse, also had a fondness for steel. He enjoyed ripping his steel feed containers off the wall and stomping them flat. With lack of breeding, an ornery spirit, and noteworthy conformation defects, John Henry was gelded, his "label" neatly ripped off and disposed of. This decision certainly resulted in the owner kicking himself black and blue. For the rest of his life. The horse went on to become the richest gelding of any breed in history. Racing until an unheard of age of 9, John Henry won two horse of the year titles and became the first racehorse to surpass 4 million in career earnings. Not bad for an off brand.

I visited Churchill Downs in May of 2007, just a few days before the 133rd Derby. I will never forget it. It was early, before the museum opened, so I followed a few others to the track to watch what was left of warmups. It was chilly but the sun shone brightly, working hard to burn off the early morning mist still clinging to the track. Grounds keepers were quietly hard at work to mulch and prepare the flower beds for the upcoming crowds. What struck me was the almost reverant quiet trackside. As if nobody wanted to disturb a sort of holy effort being exerted--like the hush before athletic events at the Olympics. Then I heard pounding hooves breaking through the fog. Two horses breezed their way around. They ran easily, joyfully. Because it felt good, because that is what God created them to do. I felt my throat tighten. Tears stung my eyes. Why? It was beautiful. That is all. For an instant I experienced the dream, the emotion, the tremendous heart that beats behind the sport of kings.

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