When I was growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, we had a black female Cocker Spaniel named Princess. I was about 4 years old, when I tried to ride her like a horse. Despite the fact that I was quite a bit shorter and much lighter then I am now, she would have no part of it; lacking in competitive spirit I suppose. My first real exposure to horses was when I was 16 and would go riding the unfortunate semi-abused horses at a place called Chelsea Farms in Chadds Ford, PA. It was there I learned the rhythm of the trot, the grace of a canter, and to hold on like hell to the saddle horn at the beginning of a gallop. There was this one horse that always headed for the low hanging branches of the trees, just high enough for him to pass…. but not me. With scratches on my arms, back, and face every time I rode him, I came to the conclusion he really didn’t like his job. Or was it humans? I was never quite sure.
The first thoroughbred to catch my eye was Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes. He seemed so much larger then rest of the field and his stride was city blocks long. But I won’t spend time on how beautiful Secretariat was. We all know that. and there’s no sense beating a dead horse (sorry I had to say it). Then came mental snap shots of Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid – a very long gap in time and then, and then…Rachel Alexandra!
The first day I set foot on a racetrack was September 4th, 2009; the day before the 56th running of the Woodward G1. A high school friend whom I hadn’t seen in over 40 years asked me to go at the spur of the moment. On Wednesday, I flew up to Philadelphia. On Thursday, we started our road trip up to Saratoga Springs. On Friday morning we headed out to “The Spa”. Let me tell you, that weekend was a thoroughbred race fan’s dream. First, we met with a writer from the Times Union in Albany; a great guy who secured us passes to the paddock, smuggled us up to the press box, and watched a few races from the roof. Then we met with Marion Altieri of Alpha Mare fame who invited us to the backside, and (best of all), squatting at the rail by the 1/16th pole to see Rachel win the Woodward! I got to see the Spa from the inside, outside, topside, and Rachel Alexander, up close and personal.
There is so much more I would like to share about my experience in Saratoga, but there is limited space here. The one thing I must share, if you would please indulge me, is how the equine needle was injected into me. It was during my first day at the Spa, the very first hour …I was standing there in the paddock trying to take in this whole new subculture with the limited gray matter I had remaining. I was in total awe of the magnificence of these thoroughbreds when one of them, I don’t even remember which one, looked me directly in the eye and I looked back, neither wanting nor able to turn away. I cannot say how long we stood there in that fixed gaze, for that was a moment of entanglement, devoid of time. Suddenly this feeling came over me, spiritual in nature, as if I were floating ever so slightly off the ground. Inside, an overwhelming sensation of calmness dominated, no wait, it was more like a pure peaceful state of being.
There was a strong energy flow being exchanged and it seemed to be filling me up with something that needed no words. The stare was broken by the influence of the trainer and the horse went on to do what it was meant to do, run. Meanwhile, I remained in the same spot trying to figure out exactly what just happened. I looked around and things seemed different somehow. As I tried to process this experience it dawned on me, everything around me was still the same…it was I who changed. I was seeing things in a different way, as if I suddenly became aware of a knowledge inside myself that had existed all along. I didn’t mention this to anyone for fear of being whisked away to some institution and placed under observation. And I wasn’t about to miss out on seeing Rachel run in the Woodward the next day, no sir. Relating this enchanting encounter was not worth that risk. I had experienced the spirit of an entity that found its physical niche over 5 million years ago…having an exquisite sense of instinct and balance with nature. The rest of that day and weekend I walked around with this little Buddhist monk smile on my face only few could detect.
And this, my friends, is what turned me from a Cocker Spaniel jockey child into the thoroughbred racing geek I am today.