In 2007 I had the opportunity to visit Churchill Downs two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. In Louisville for a two-day writer’s conference, schedules were tight and I fought a bit of jetlag hangover. Still, there was no way I’d miss the chance to see The Downs, a place steeped in generations of equine glory.
Once backside, I followed the rest of the tour group at a distance, satisfied to silently take in the regal spirit of the place. It was chilly and fog hovered over the famous track. It seemed alive with the anticipation of the coming race—The Sport of Kings. Morning exercise was winding down and sunshine glittered at the edges of the mist promising warmth. Still a little sleepy, I gazed at the near empty track, lost in my own world.
The stillness was abruptly broken by the thunder of hooves. I turned to watch two Thoroughbreds breeze by, playfully, or so it seemed, battling for position. They galloped effortlessly by, blowing rhythmically with each stride, and disappeared into the fog. I just stared, goose bumps covering my arms, as unexplainable emotion rose inside. It was breathtaking. Am I becoming a hopeless sap? I thought, feeling the tears prickle. Maybe I’m just tired. The sight is one I’ll never forget.
“Look of the eagle” aside (or perhaps its Eye of the Tiger—still loving that ‘80s culture), the Thoroughbred horse is one breed I’ve been content to admire from a distance. An elite athlete is best kept doing the job it is born to do and that particular breed isn’t known for its every day “livability,” shall we say. That’s why it’s rather amusing to see one grazing in the field right now, a horse on trial for Haley. Even if we don’t buy him, “Poncho” has been an inspiration on the power of identity.
I’m a big believer in names. Animals tend to live up to the moniker we bestow on them. That’s why there will never be a Witch, Jezebel, or Outlaw in my herd. The last choice is actually part of the registered name of our Quarter Horse, Cowboy. Perhaps no surprise the horse had a history of bucking. We took no chances and gave him a more promising handle and he’s been a great guy. Sometimes a horse is given an unfortunate registered name such a friend’s “Voodoo Magic” and there’s not much you can do about it. She calls the gelding by a positive nickname, however, so I say his future is “bright and shining.” Eli’s barn name was acceptable when I got him, but I love the meaning of his registered name Aur Elijah. The Biblical prophet Elijah had an astonishing life on Earth befitting its Hebrew meaning: My god is the Lord. I shortened Elijah to Eli which works better around the barn. The subtle difference in meaning still inspires: Ascend my God.
I’d have never gone to look at a Thoroughbred had it not been for the videos. Cruising Craigslist one day I clicked on an ad and saw photos of a non-descript brown gelding as well as videos of him running barrels and poles. There was something easy, natural, and relaxed about the horse’s performance. He didn’t look crazy or out-of-control. Sure he was the wrong breed…but, what the heck?
My first reaction upon meeting Poncho was, “Oh boy…he looks so Thoroughbred!” And not a particularly pretty one at that. His name—which I thought suggested a fat Mexican cook—didn’t suit the narrow, rangy animal I saw before me. I could count nearly every rib. To make his appearance worse, Poncho’s left eye had a conspicuous cloudy spot and the hair behind both ears was permanently white, evidence of prolonged pressure from…something.
“What’s up with that?” I gestured to the eye.
“A piece of grit got in his eye when he was on the track. It required a drain tube and stall rest with his head tied up for three months.”
I grimaced, from both the details of the injury and the horse’s past life. An off the track gaming Thoroughbred—what could be worse? Full body armor anyone?
We watched the owner tack up the horse and begin warm-up. When Poncho broke to a canter I heard the distinctive blowing unique to race horses begin to punctuate his every stride. He ran naturally, easily, and in the space of a few minutes I’d forgotten about his bony topline and that fat Mexican. It was obvious what he was and what he’d been created to do.
After Haley rode him I asked the owner for more details about his past at the races. She did not know his race history, name, or real age so we looked for a lip tattoo. Sure enough, several numbers found behind the upper lip promised to reveal the horse’s true identity. Curious, I took it down and gave it to a friend with connections to the Jockey Club.
“His name is Tropic Star,” she told me a few days later. “He’s 7 years old. You can watch his races online.”
Haley and I had great fun watching a star athlete win a race early in his career, prior to the injury that eventually dumped him onto Craigslist. He came from the back of the pack on that particular day and won by several lengths.
Later I got to thinking about names and, more importantly, identity. The times I’ve acted the worst and/or treated others badly can all be traced to issues with identity. Too often I’ve believed a lie or thoughtlessly attached labels rather than searching for the truth: Child of God; Greatly Loved; Possessing Unlimited Ability. A King’s Kid.
Embracing our true identity is a beautiful thing.