If you’ve been following the blog for some time, you may already be familiar with my origin story. After discovering horse racing via Walter Farley and his Black Stallion series, I watched the Triple Crown races on television, dreaming of the day that I could go see horses run LIVE. Thanks to my aunt Betty, that dream came true the next year.
I have to start this story with a bit of geography. I grew up in the Birmingham, Alabama metropolitan area, where football is king, baseball and basketball might duke it out for second, and horse racing appears down the list of sports of import — way down. (Right now, if I wanted to go to the races, the closest track would be Keeneland — five hours away. ) Not since the first part of the 20th century has the Birmingham area seen horse racing, but, in early 1987, the Birmingham Turf Club (now the Birmingham Race Course) opened. The Turf Club has live horse racing, not just simulcasting, but, as a twelve-year-old kid who lived in the ‘burbs, walking there was out of the question. That’s where my dear aunt Betty comes in.
I don’t remember the exact date, but I know it was 1989 when Betty and I rolled down the interstate toward the Turf Club. I’m sure I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, giddy with anticipation. Actual horses! Actual horses running on dirt! Actual jockeys! This sport I loved would be live in front of me rather than some removed spectacle on a television set. Now, nearly thirty years later, I don’t remember many of the details, but I do remember the thrill of it all, the warmth down in my gut that this was a place I could spend hours and never be bored, never want to leave.
We bought a program and started perusing the entries for the races. I made my picks and, being about a decade too young, had to wait patiently as my aunt placed my bets for me. Each time, she would ask, “Are you sure?” and I would nod with the certainty that only comes from your first time at the track and the sure wins racing luck gives you to reel you in well and good. My bets were never more than a couple of dollars — I was twelve and cash was precious — but I remember winning and winning enough that we soon had a couple of grizzled old gamblers following us around.
“Who does the kid like in the next race?” they would ask my aunt. And I would share because I felt so grown-up having old men ask me what I thought about the races. I knew how to read the past performances and such, but I’m sure I took the kid’s perspective of betting on names and horse colors. To this day, gray horses and memorable names get me every time (see My Miss Lilly & Arrogate).
Outside of the grizzled gamblers, my only other clear memory of my first day at the races is going out to the paddock to watch the horses get saddled for the next race. I remember standing at the rail watching trainers place the saddles and tighten the girths, the jockeys milling around, waiting for instructions. One horse in particular caught my eye, a beautiful chestnut filly/mare with a wide blaze named Missy Be Good. I don’t know how or why or heck if I’m remembering it correctly, but I think she walked up to me, her nostrils flaring as she took in my scent. She was checking me out and I must have been wide-eyed and frozen with fascination. It was the closest I had ever been to a horse. I wish I could be in that moment again, to take it in one more time. I want to capture the whole of it so I can preserve it in a mental photograph I can look at over and over.
I haven’t been to the races many times since that day nearly 30 years ago. I’ve been to the Derby and the Preakness, thanks to my dear husband, and I’ve been to Keeneland; I even went back to the Birmingham Turf Club one more time after that day with Betty. Each of those days at the races holds a special place in my heart, but that first one is what reeled me in and never let me go, thanks to my Aunt Betty, some grizzled old gamblers, and a horse named Missy Be Good.
What are your memories of your first time at the race track? What sucked you into the sport? Share your experiences in the comments!